Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Huffington Post and The Boston Globe Highlight Misrepresentation of Science by Anti-Smoking Groups

Today, a column by Jeff Stier in the Huffington Post blog ("Secondhand smoke exaggerations challenged") and an article by Alex Beam in the Boston Globe ("Where there's smoke...there's Dr. Siegel) highlight the misrepresentation of the science regarding the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke by anti-smoking groups.

In Jeff Stier's column at Huffington Post, he highlights the challenge that I issued yesterday to anti-smoking groups to back up the assertion - made by Action on Smoking and Health on its web site - that nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke for 30 minutes are at the same risk of dying from a fatal heart attack as active smokers.

As Stier summarizes it: "the evidence does not support the claim that more than 100 groups are wantonly making -- which is that acute but transient exposure increases heart-attack risk in healthy individuals. ... The "evidence" behind the ASH assertion is flimsy. Comparably-weak evidence suggesting that smoking is less dangerous than previously thought would be laughed at. To me it is obvious: some anti-smoking activists have adopted an "ends justifies the means" approach in pursuit of their noble cause."

"This is what makes Siegel's finding so troubling. We can no longer rely on the public-health establishment for scientifically accurate information. They'll fudge the numbers if they have to, so long as it promotes their overall agenda -- in this case, the drive to outlaw smoking in all public places. ... Science eventually catches up with those who hyperbolize about risks, and the public learns to disregard them. It would be tragic to see some public-health advocates lose the mantle of sound science and end up going the way of the old Tobacco Institute. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and needs our urgent attention. Overstating the case may help the advocates win this political battle but at significant cost to the overall public-health war."

Alex Beam writes in today's Boston Globe, after reviewing the evidence and speaking with a number of experts, including me, Dr. Stan Glantz, and folks at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, that anti-smoking groups are misrepresenting the science regarding the acute cardiovascular health effects of secondhand smoke because "the anti-smoking lobbies aren't in business to promote public health; they're in business to stay in business."

Beam writes: "Oh, my. I guess Boston University professor Dr. Michael Siegel won't be getting invited to the "right" dinner parties in towns like Newton and Brookline, where whiffs of secondhand smoke are equated with a release of Ebola virus. Siegel has just published a heretical paper in the journal Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations analyzing the purported effects of secondhand smoke."

Beam reports the response to this debate from two tobacco control experts: "... A spokesman for Tobacco-Free Kids declined to discussSiegel: "We don't want to say anything to categorize him in any way." "I view him as a tragic figure - he has completely lost it," says University of California tobacco researcher Stanton Glantz. "His view is that everybody in the tobacco control movement is corrupt and misguided except for him. You have to be careful what you say to preserve credibility in academic circles, and he is not doing that."

The Rest of the Story

First of all, I have to say that I am devastated that my days of partying with the 'righties' in Newton and Brookline are over. That is certainly a crushing blow from which I am not sure I can recover.

More importantly, I am glad that Dr. Glantz recognizes that I have completely lost it. I've been telling my family that for years, but no one seems to be paying any attention. Perhaps that's because they realized I had already lost it many years ago. I think it probably became apparent 38 years ago, when I frantically and desperately rooted for the Detroit Tigers in the post-Kaline era.

Dr. Glantz is wrong, however, in suggesting that I don't think of myself as being corrupt and misguided. Clearly, I must be misguided. Why else would I, in my right mind, put my entire career on the line in order to speak out for the truth? Why else would I challenge the statements that anti-smoking groups are making? This is a religious-like movement, and if you challenge the established wisdom (even if that wisdom is an errant statement made by one particular group), you have crossed the line. There is no place in this religion for you. You are a heretic. Clearly, you are misguided.

And as far as corruption goes, I have yet to publicly deny, on this blog, that I am being paid by tobacco companies to express these heretical positions. I do not here deny that I am corrupt. I just happen to believe that my interpretation of the science is correct, despite my egregious corruptness.

On a more serious note, I find it quite troubling that there is a perception that in order to remain credible in academic circles, one needs to censor what one says in order to avoid political incorrectness. This is actually the one thing Dr. Glantz said with which I agree. I think it is clear, from my experience, that one cannot challenge the established wisdom of the tobacco control movement without being ostracized from the tobacco control community. Unfortunately for Dr. Glantz and for the anti-smoking groups which continue to deceive the public, while I may have lost credibility among anti-smoking zealots, I certainly have not lost credibility in wider academic circles, including among the editors and reviewers of Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations, which chose to publish my recent paper.

It is really only within the tightly controlled and regulated circle of the tobacco control "academic" community that I have been blacklisted. Academics who are less fanatical and who have some regard for the rigors of science welcome a fellow academic who is willing to stand up against these powers and speak out for the truth.

Equally troubling is Stier's observation that due to these actions of the anti-smoking movement, we can no longer trust the public health establishment for scientifically accurate information.

This is precisely the problem. It is not the case that the majority of what anti-smoking groups are communicating is flawed. In fact, most of their communications are accurate. But once the public comes to believe that these groups are misrepresenting the science - even if the fallacious claims represent only a small proportion of those communications - the groups will lose their credibility entirely. None of what they say will be believed. Yet credibility is critical to the effectiveness of anti-smoking and all public health organizations.

As Jeff Stier writes: "Science eventually catches up with those who hyperbolize about risks, and the public learns to disregard them. It would be tragic to see some public-health advocates lose the mantle of sound science and end up going the way of the old Tobacco Institute."

Unfortunately, if things don't change quickly, I'm afraid that's exactly the direction the movement is headed. It may not become extinct like the Tobacco Institute, but it will lose its credibility, its reputation, and its effectiveness. How many more Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and Huffington Post articles does the movement need to see before it ends the character assassination and begins to actually address the scientific issues being raised therein?

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