Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Right From the Anti-Smoking Playbook: When You Don't Like Something Someone Says, Accuse Them of Being a Big Tobacco Shill

In July 2005, I wrote the 2nd of my "Challenging Dogma" posts, in which I expose and question certain aspects of the dogma with which I have been indoctrinated in the tobacco control movement. In that post, I explained how groups like Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) have convinced anti-smoking advocates nationwide that anyone who disagrees with the agenda of the tobacco control movement is affiliated with the tobacco industry and should be publicly discredited by insinuating that they have a relationship with Big Tobacco.

A letter to the editor in a March issue of The Vital Voice, a St. Louis newspaper, demonstrates the use of this tactic by a national anti-smoking group. The letter responds to a February column written by Bill Hannegan - founder of Keep St. Louis Free (and a regular Rest of the Story reader and commenter) - which argues against bar and restaurant smoking bans, claiming that they will cause economic harm to businesses and that the health effects of secondhand smoke are not severe and can be dealt with adequately using air filtration systems.

In its letter, the anti-smoking group accuses Hannegan of being a paid Big Tobacco "shill." It intimates to readers that Hannegan is simply doing the dirty work for the tobacco industry, taking orders from the public relations department of Philip Morris.

The anti-smoking group writes that it "would like to ask Mr. Hannegan, can you please disclose if you are receiving funds from the tobacco industry or one of its funded organizations? Because the truth of the matter is that tobacco companies have long ago figured out that they can appeal to consumers by painting smoking as a “right” that they should protect at all costs. And they have hired local community activists to do the dirty work for them. ... Considering you think evidence presented by the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society is not valid, we would like to know if you are being paid by the tobacco industry. Because, we might just want to know if our advice on health and freedom is coming from the PR department of Phillip Morris."

The Rest of the Story

I believe it is unethical and inappropriate to publicly insinuate that an individual is a Big Tobacco shill unless you have evidence to support that insinuation. Because the insinuation is made in the form of a question, rather than an explicit statement, the letter falls short of being defamatory; however, the intent of the letter is the same. Even though it is presented in the form of a question, it essentially represents a public insinuation that Hannegan is a Big Tobacco lackey. Many, if not most readers of the Vital Voice are going to come away with the impression that Hannegan is a paid front for Big Tobacco. Even if Bill writes in to deny the accusation, it will be too late. The insinuation alone has already harmed his reputation; moreover, not everyone who read the anti-smoking group's letter is going to read Bill's denial. And why should the burden be on Bill to write a denial in the first place? Should not the burden of proof be on the anti-smoking group to prove, or at least provide evidence for, its insinuation?

In recent days, I myself have been at the receiving end of both explicit and implicit insinuations that I am a paid tobacco shill. The explicit insinuation came from an anti-smoking colleague (who, to his credit, subsequently retracted the accusation and apologized). The implicit insinuation comes from a blog reader, who questions whether I am a Big Tobacco shill, but without providing any evidence to support this insinuation or publicly acknowledging that he has no reason to believe that I am being paid by the tobacco companies to express my opinions.

These examples illustrate the loyal execution of the ANR playbook. If you don't like what someone is saying, cast doubt in the public eye about whether that individual may be associated with Big Tobacco. Whether it is true or not, this will discredit the individual and his or her dissent. Notably, it will also make it more difficult for others to question the anti-smoking agenda in the future; individuals will be reluctant to do so if they are afraid their reputations may be tarnished by these accusations.

Many readers of The Rest of the Story have themselves been subject to this anti-smoking group tactic. I explain here how Dave Kuneman was falsely accused of having worked for Philip Morris (attack courtesy of TobaccoScam); I discuss here how my friend Martha Perske was accused of being a Big Tobacco front (attack courtesy of an article in the American Journal of Public Health); and I discuss here how Michael McFadden was accused of being a tobacco industry lackey (attack courtesy of a past president of the Canadian Thoracic Society).

Bill - you're now in good company. Welcome to the club.

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