Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Oh Webmaster, Where Art Thou? Why It Appears that Anti-Smoking Groups Do Not Care About Scientific Integrity

On October 22, 2007, I notified Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails that a statistic on its web site was blatantly false. The site stated that: "Smoking Kills About 340 Young People A Day." Now, almost four and a half months later, I was surprised to check the web site this morning to find that the claim still remains: "Smoking Kills About 340 Young People A Day."

Importantly, Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails does not dispute my contention that its statement is false. Instead, its excuse for not correcting the information is that the assertion is contained in a frame that can only be changed by the web master, who apparently is somehow not available and has been unavailable for the past four and a half months.

Clearly, 340 young people do not die from smoking every day. That would mean that there are 120,000 deaths from smoking each year among young people. As I have explained previously, it is rare for smoking to cause death prior to about age 40, or age 35 at the earliest (though there may be very rare exceptions). Thus, it would be difficult to defend a claim that smoking kills 1,000 young people each year, much less 120,000.

The Rest of the Story

While I suppose it is theoretically possible that the webmaster truly is secluded on the island of Huahine in French Polynesia or at Islas Secas in Panama, it seems to me that a more likely possibility is that Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails is simply not that concerned about the false information on its web site. The group doesn't seem to have given the correction of its provision of false information to the public any level of priority. It appears to have been given a priority score of 0 on a scale of 1 to making sure that the office coffee filters are in ample supply.

For sure, the web site is maintained and updated. For example, it lists the film "Vantage Point," which was just released on February 22 (it reports that there was no smoking in the movie). So it doesn't appear to be the case that this is a web site that has simply been abandoned.

If this were my own web site, and I found out that there was blatantly false information on it, I would not delay in correcting that information. If the content was accessible only to a web master, then I would demand that the hosting company change it. It would not be acceptable to me to wait 4 1/2 months to try to track down the web master.

It just suggests to me that the organization is not all that concerned about scientific accuracy and integrity. There are apparently much more pressing concerns. I find that unfortunate and I think that it unfortunately makes the entire anti-smoking movement look bad, not just Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails.

I think public health organizations have a responsibility to convey accurate information to the public. While everyone makes mistakes, it is difficult to excuse a situation where the group admits to the mistake but has not changed the false claim for 4 1/2 months.

If I am wrong, and the web master is truly on a sustained vacation, then all I can say is I want his or her job. Where can I apply?

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