Friday, December 07, 2007

IN MY VIEW: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is Degrading Scientific Integrity of Tobacco Control with Its "Pick a Number Out of a Hat" Science

Yesterday, I revealed that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is disseminating very specific estimates about the number of lives that would be saved by enacting the proposed FDA tobacco legislation that are based on complete junk science. The Campaign based its entire series of projections of health care cost savings on an undocumented and unsupported estimate made in a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that there would be a 12.5% reduction in youth smoking if this legislation were to be enacted. However, neither the CBO nor the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids provides any scientific evidence to support their claim that the legislation would reduce smoking rates among youths by 12.5%. This is pure speculation. It is essentially picking a number out of a hat.

Neither the CBO nor the Campaign offers any explanation for exactly how the legislation would reduce smoking rates. Neither consider any of the many ways in which this legislation would likely increase smoking rates. There is no sensitivity analysis, in which projections are provided given a range of assumptions, rather than a single assumption. This is not science. It is junk science.

Here, I discuss the implications of this kind of junk science for the tobacco control movement.

The Rest of the Story

In my view, this kind of junk science seriously harms the tobacco control movement. It works towards undermining the movement's scientific integrity and credibility.

What is the point of researchers in tobacco control doing serious research and policy analysis if the leading anti-smoking group is simply going to make up the facts, picking a number out of a hat and drawing sweeping conclusions that have no basis in any evidence base?

Suppose a researcher wanted to do a proper analysis of the potential effects of the FDA legislation on smoking rates and health care costs. What would be the point of doing so? The Campaign has already disseminated its undocumented and unsupported sweeping conclusions. It is too late for anyone to conduct real science. The bogus information has already been disseminated. The valid research question is essentially moot.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I gave up my position as a statistical and methodological editor with the journal Tobacco Control. I just don't see the value of carefully conducted and stringently reviewed science in tobacco control anymore. If groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are going to engage in "pick a number from a hat junk science," then what is the need for solid science? If groups like the Campaign are going to widely disseminate junk science findings and lobby for legislation based on that junk science, then what role does solid science play in the movement? To prove the Campaign was wrong after it's too late and the legislation has already been enacted? I don't see the point.

Even worse, the effects on the scientific credibility of the movement could be severe. In some ways, the movement is only as strong as its weakest link. Even if 95% of the science being conducted is solid, if the public sees a small proportion of science that is complete junk, the credibility of the movement could be completely destroyed. People do not calculate the proportion of science that is solid vs. junk. If they see junk, they dismiss the credibility of the movement altogether.

And perhaps worst of all, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is destroying the difference in scientific quality between the tobacco control movement and the tobacco industry. It used to be that I could tell people that the tobacco industry produces junk science and that if you want to know the real science, you have to listen to what tobacco control groups are saying. Now, I can't tell people that. Based on the latest junk science from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, I can't honestly say that the tobacco control groups have any more of an evidence-base for their statements than the tobacco industry does.

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