The St. Louis University Tobacco Prevention Center had the audacity to claim that Plutonium 210 - which does not exist anywhere in the known universe - is present in secondhand smoke. This claim was made in correction of an earlier claim that secondhand smoke contains asbestos. For this, the St. Louis University Tobacco Prevention Center is today being crowned the winner of the Most Ridiculous Secondhand Smoke Health Claim Tournament.
The winning claim is: "Arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, Plutonium 210 and a host of other poisons are in secondhand smoke."
It takes persistence and determination to win tournaments and the St. Louis University Tobacco Prevention Center certainly seemed determined to make a claim that would knock the socks off of the public. First, it claimed that secondhand smoke contains asbestos. Then, when that claim was debunked, it retracted the asbestos but instead, stated that secondhand smoke contains plutonium.
To the best of my knowledge, there was no further retraction of the plutonium claim. Apparently, the St. Louis University Tobacco Prevention Center stands by its claim that secondhand smoke contains plutonium.
Second place in the tournament goes to another Missouri group - Smokefree Air for Everyone - which claimed that just 20 seconds of secondhand smoke exposure can cause a stroke in an otherwise healthy person.
The runner-up claim is: "After 20 minutes, blood platelets look like a pack-a-day smoker's, making your blood "sticky" and contributing to stroke causing blood clots."
The Rest of the Story
A critical reason why these organizations did so well in the tournament is that they did not retract these absurd claims. You don't get rewarded for simply making a mistake. Anyone can make a mistake. What you are rewarded for here is making the mistake but failing to correct it. This is especially impressive because both of the web pages with these fallacious claims are still active and accessible, and thus the public is still reading this inaccurate information.
As a public health practitioner, I believe that there is a responsibility of tobacco control groups to accurately communicate science to the public. I also believe it is unnecessary to exaggerate or distort the truth because the known chronic effects of secondhand smoke should be enough. But if tobacco control groups continue to misrepresent the science, the credibility of the anti-smoking movement will be threatened. My hope, through this tournament, is to restore the tobacco control movement by highlighting the questionable tactics being used, holding the organizations accountable to the public, and putting pressure on the relevant organizations to correct their actions.
If all goes well, there will not be a need for a 2009 Tournament. However, based on the response I have received thus far from anti-smoking groups whose claims I have questioned, there is no reason to believe that things will go well. Instead of responding substantively and defending or correcting the claims, most of the groups have instead attacked me.
Somehow, I have a feeling that there will be plenty of entries for the 2009 Tournament.