Thursday, July 10, 2008

Scene Smoking Still Claims that Tobacco Kills 124,000 Young People A Year; We Can Safely Conclude that They Do Not Care About the Facts

Eight and a half months after pointing out directly to Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails that a central "fact" on its Scene Smoking web site was incorrect, the "fact" remains unchanged. The Scene Smoking web site of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails still claims that: "Smoking Kills About 340 Young People A Day."

This claim, which is equivalent to stating that smoking kills 124,000 young people each year, is blatantly absurd, and false on its face. Obviously, smoking doesn't kill 124,000 young people each year.

In its communications with me, Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails has never argued the point. They have not defended the claim. Instead, they have maintained that they intend to change it but that the web master is away and unavailable, and that the claim cannot be changed without the web master.

The Rest of the Story

At this point, almost nine months after first reporting this "mistake" to the organization, it is becoming apparent to me that Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails just doesn't care about whether the information on its web site is accurate or not. What else can I possibly conclude, given that they have known about this blatant factual error for more than eight months and have still failed to correct it?

It appears that this anti-smoking group, like an increasing number of such groups in my experience, believes that the cause is so important that the facts really don't matter. It doesn't matter whether you are telling the public the truth, because the cause is so important and valuable. The ends justifies the means. It is acceptable to communicate false information to the public because the ultimate cause is a good one. When you are made aware that information you are communicating is false, it is not important to correct it. You can get to it whenever you get around to it. Let people continue to be misled and deceived. It's OK, because this is all for a good cause.

I'm sorry, but I just don't accept this attitude. I don't know what is more important to the tobacco control movement than its scientific integrity. Moreover, I believe we have an ethical obligation to communicate accurate information to the public. Certainly, we make mistakes, but when that occurs, you correct them as soon as possible. Eight and a half months and counting is not "as soon as possible."

This also leads me to question whether the original claim is actually a mistake. It seems difficult to believe that the organization could have made a simple careless error and ended up with the claim that smoking kills about 340 young people a day. It's not like a simple typographical error or careless construction of the statement could have resulted in the erroneous nature of the claim. It's a pretty simple and straightforward assertion, and it's hard to believe that one could make such a claim without really meaning it, or that one could fail to be aware of what one is actually asserting by such a statement.

Add to this the organization's failure to correct the statement and one is left with the impression that this may not be a mistake, but that it may be an intentional effort to deceive. In fact, one could argue that since the organization was aware of the inaccuracy of the claim eight and a half months ago, its continuing dissemination of the claim to the public represents intentional deception.

For the past eight and a half months, this certainly cannot be an example of an unknowing deception of the public. It is now being done in a deliberate way. The organization has apparently made a choice to leave the claim on the web site for the past eight and a half months.

I don't mean to pick on this one organization, but I think this is an important story because it demonstrates why I have come to believe that the tobacco control movement largely doesn't care any more about its scientific accuracy. It is truly becoming clear to me that the cause is more important than anything, even the truth. If we need to tell lies to accomplish our goals, so be it, because the cause is just so important.

I find it ironic that much of the basis for tobacco control is the premise that the tobacco companies have been communicating misleading and inaccurate information to the public for many years. Interestingly, there are few examples of outright material misrepresentations of facts by the tobacco industry. Mostly, the examples are those of misleading portrayal of information. But here, we have an example of outright dishonesty. I would argue that the statement in question is not merely misleading; it is demonstrably false.

Do we really need to stoop down so low, below the level of even the tobacco industry, to make our points to the public?

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