Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tobacco Control Activist Responds to Revelation of Incorrect Data on Website: I Don't Care; Anti-Smoking Group Apparently Decides to Retain Inaccuracy

An anti-smoking activist has responded to my revelation on Monday of an incorrect (and blatantly false) assertion on a tobacco control web site by admitting that he really doesn't care. My email to him on Monday alerted him to the presence of this incorrect statistic on the web site. His response: "I don't waste my time on you and your blog any more."

The anti-smoking group which is posting the incorrect information also doesn't appear to care about its accuracy. The organization responsible for this error - Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trials - has apparently decided to retain the mistake because after reading my email and the blog post on Monday, it has failed to correct the problem. As of the writing of this post, Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails is still maintaining that smoking in movies "kills about 340 young people a day."


According to the web site, 340 young people die every day from seeing smoking in movies. is a web site dedicated to the effort to get smoking out of movies seen by young people, and is run by Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails.

At the bottom left corner of the home page, you'll see a statistic given in the form of a movie ratings label. The label is "SK-340." It reads: "Viewers Strongly Cautioned. Smoking Kills About 340 Young People A Day. Smoking in Movies is Not Cool, Healthy Nor Needed."

Presumably, what the statistic intends to communicate is that 340 young people die each day from the depiction of smoking in the movies. It appears that the support for this statistic comes directly from a paper by Dr. Stanton Glantz which was published in the journal The Lancet in July 2003 ("Smoking in movies: a major problem and a real solution").

According to that article: "In the USA, about 2050 adolescents (age 12–17) start smoking every day and about 32% of these people—660 a day—will die prematurely because of smoking. Assuming that the 52·2% attributable risk observed by Dalton and colleagues applies to this whole group, smoking in movies is responsible for addicting 1080 US adolescents to tobacco every day, 340 of whom will die prematurely as a result."

So according to this paper, 340 young people become addicted to smoking each day due to seeing smoking in movies and will eventually die prematurely as a result.

On its face, the claim by this anti-smoking group is absurd. There are not 340 deaths among young people each day due to smoking, much less due to smoking that was caused by exposure to smoking in movies.

In fact, according to the CDC, there are no (ZERO) deaths attributable to smoking among persons under age 35. The reason is quite simple: it is rare for young people to die from smoking.

Now of course one could argue about what is meant by "young people." If one argues that anyone under age 65 is a "young" person (a definition that becomes increasingly appealing to me each year), then perhaps this claim is no longer absurdly false. But it would then be terribly misleading, because I doubt that anyone reading the web page is thinking of 40 and 50 and 60-year-olds when they read that "Smoking [in Movies] Kills 340 Young People A Day."

For the purposes of its smoking-attributable death calculations, the CDC defines middle-age as starting at age 35. I've never heard public health scientists referring to an age group above age 35 as representing what they mean when they talk about "young people."

Now I've already explained why I don't believe it is accurate even to claim that exposure to smoking in movies causes 340 young people to eventually die prematurely from smoking. But to state that 340 young people die each day because of exposure to smoking in movies is ludicrous. And patently false.

I really don't understand this need to lie to the public, or to stretch the truth beyond recognition, in order to make a point to the public. Forgetting about my argument that there is no valid scientific support for the claim that smoking in movies kills 120,000 people each year, if wanted to accept this statistic from this one author, then what would the problem have been in stating that 340 young people will eventually die prematurely due to smoking in movies?

The problem, as far as I can see, is that it would not have been sensational enough. Apparently, it is no longer enough to tell the truth in tobacco control. It is not good enough to accurately represent the science.

The Rest of the Story

Today, the story gets more revealing. Based on the response of the anti-smoking activist who is largely responsible for this statistic, this is not merely a careless error. In fact, it does not appear that he, nor the group making the claim, care about the accuracy of the claim. They are neither willing to defend the claim or to remove or correct it.

There are really only two reasonable responses to my email:

1) Sorry Mike. You are wrong. And here is why; or

2) Thanks Mike. You are right. We'll fix it.

But instead, from the anti-smoking activist I get:

"I don't waste my time on you and your blog any more."

And from the group making the claim, I get:


It really does appear, then, that this deception by an anti-smoking group is not merely some sort of careless mistake. It certainly appears that it is a calculated decision to deceive the public. In other words, this appears to be intentional deception.

I am willing to reconsider my opinion that this anti-smoking group is willfully deceiving the public. But first, I need to see documentation of the "fact" that 340 young people die each day from smoking.

So I challenge Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails to provide documentation that there are 120,000 young people who die each year from smoking.

Given the fact that I have been in the position of generating the nation's statistics on the age-specific mortality from smoking (as an epidemiologist at the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health), I can tell you that the annual number of deaths from smoking among young people (even if we define young as less than 40 years of age) is nowhere near 120,000. Not even close. Not remotely close.

But I am still willing to see documentation to the contrary.

I'm anxiously awaiting it.

I'll let you know tomorrow whether I get it. But I can tell you that if I don't, it's going to be very difficult to continue to maintain my position that the anti-smoking groups are not deliberately lying to the public.

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