Saturday, October 20, 2007

IN MY VIEW: Why Has The Tobacco Control Movement Lost Its Scientific Integrity?

In this post, I address two questions that have been asked by a number of readers and by several reporters since the publication of my article in Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations, which concludes that many anti-smoking groups are misrepresenting the acute cardiovascular health effects of secondhand smoke:

1. Did this misrepresentation of the science just start, or has it been going on for some time?

2. If the misrepresentation of the science has been increasing over time, why?

My answer to the first question is that while some misrepresentation of the science may have been occurring for some time, there has, without a doubt, been a dramatic increase in the amount of this misrepresentation. Without question, it is over the past six years, from 2001 forward, that I have observed a complete loss of scientific integrity within the tobacco control movement.

My answer to the second question is that the loss of scientific integrity in tobacco control coincides perfectly with the abdication by the tobacco industry of its role as a watchdog for "anti-tobacco industry" statements and communications.

In essence, the role that I am now playing is one that the tobacco industry used to play, albeit for a different reason. The tobacco industry played a watchdog role because they wanted to discredit tobacco control and undermine its public credibility. I am now playing this watchdog role because I want to restore the scientific integrity of the movement and save its public credibility. Nevertheless, the role that I am playing is very similar to what the tobacco industry used to do.

To some extent, it is surprising to me that the tobacco companies have not made more of a public display over the outright misrepresentation of science by anti-smoking groups. I suppose they feel that if they just lay back, the movement will destroy its own credibility. This may be a wise strategy, since it seems that every day, the claims get more and more absurd (wait until you read Monday's post).

First it was 30 minutes of secondhand smoke being fatal, then 20 minutes, then 5 minutes, and then basically instantaneous death from a trace of secondhand smoke.

First it was Helena, then Pueblo, then Piedmont, then Bowling Green, and now Scotland and Ireland.

First it was 120,000 deaths from exposure to smoking in movies and now it's 120,000 deaths from exposure to even a single depiction of smoking in movies.

If left to their own devices, it appears that the tobacco control movement will continue to spiral out of control in their misrepresentations of science, and eventually, they will go too far and lose public credibility. It's a good thing that somebody is trying to hold the movement accountable for its statements.

I remember, back before 2001, that whenever we wanted to make a public statement, we would quake in our boots over what the tobacco industry's reaction might be. We pored over every word of every statement we made because we were scared. We were scared of being nailed by the tobacco industry. The industry was watching every word we said and they would nail us to a tree if we took any mis-steps. So we were exceedingly careful.

Around the year 2000 or so, coinciding with the change in the public position of the tobacco companies over the health effects of smoking, the implementation of the Master Settlement Agreement, the Engle decision and the tobacco industry's attempt to portray itself to the jury in a new light, the dissolution of the Tobacco Institute, and the attempt of the tobacco industry to create a new public image in light of damaging publicity from lawsuits, it appears to me that the industry made a decision to lay off its constant vigilance over the communications of anti-smoking groups.

Gone were the days of constant FOIA requests to anti-smoking groups, which had gotten us to watch every word we said, even in non-public communications. Gone were the days of having to worry about actually being held to our public statements. Gone were the days of having to actually defend our statements publicly, and to take public responsibility for them.

This is the new era of tobacco control - sans industry oversight.

And it has truly become a free-for-all for anti-smoking organizations.

Imagine this: the anti-smoking groups can actually claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure is enough to cause hardening of the arteries. They can actually claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases your risk of a fatal heart attack to the same level as that of an active smoker. They can actually claim that 2 hours of secondhand smoke increases your risk of sudden death from a cardiac arrhythmia.

And they can get away with it.

That's why I think the anti-smoking groups have lost their scientific integrity. Because they can get away with it.

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