Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Los Angeles City Councilor Claims that Secondhand Smoke is More Harmful than Active Smoking; Pushes Ban on Smoking Everywhere Outdoors

According to Los Angeles City Councilor Bernard Parks, breathing in secondhand smoke is more dangerous than actively smoking. In a commentary in City Watch and a press release, Parks uses this "fact" to justify his proposed ordinance which would ban smoking in virtually every outdoor location in Los Angeles. Anti-smoking groups, including Breathe LA, are supporting the ordinance.

According to the commentary: "Research has shown that inhaling secondhand smoke is more harmful than actually smoking, primarily due to the unfiltered nature of the smoke and its having been cooled by the air."

The ordinance would ban smoking in every outdoors location where people "reasonably congregate." Essentially, this means that there would be no outdoors smoking anywhere, with the exception of some dark deserted alleys. If enacted, this would be the most restrictive smoking ban in the nation.

The Rest of the Story

I now understand why anti-smoking advocates and groups are distorting the truth. Because they are promoting such extreme proposals that go far beyond the documented scientific evidence that they need to create their own facts in order to justify these proposals.

You can't credibly argue that smoking needs to be banned everywhere outdoors to protect the health of nonsmokers using the actual truth about the severity of health risk from secondhand smoke exposure. There simply is no evidence that a few wisps of secondhand smoke, as one might encounter from someone smoking on a sidewalk or in a street, parking lot, or park puts people's health at risk and represents a significant public health problem.

The only way to advance these policies, then, is to artificially build up the severity of the harms of secondhand smoke so that you can convince people that any exposure - even a few wisps of smoke - is a severe health hazard.

This, I now realize, is the impetus behind the widespread fallacious claims that are being made by over 100 anti-smoking groups about the cardiovascular effects of brief secondhand smoke exposure.

I no longer believe that this distortion of the science, which goes right up to the level of the Surgeon General (who claimed that brief secondhand smoke exposure was sufficient to cause heart disease and lung cancer), represents a simple, innocent mistake.

It is now clear that this is part of a new agenda (one that I never thought was part of the movement) to extend smoking bans beyond workplaces, restaurants, bars, and other places where there is substantial exposure. The movement is now to virtually ban all smoking outside of the home, so that no nonsmoker ever has to even see a smoker in public.

There simply is no credible alternative explanation for claims - like this one - which are so absurd that they are patently false on their face. You need only think about it for about 3 seconds before you realize that secondhand smoke exposure cannot possibly be more harmful than active smoking.

The epidemiologic evidence obviously does not support such a conclusion. The relative risk of lung cancer associated with chronic active smoking is about 17. The relative risk for lung cancer associated with chronic secondhand smoke exposure is about 1.3. That's a 13-fold difference. It is intuitively clear that smoking is worse than breathing in secondhand smoke. This isn't an example of stretching or exaggerating the facts - it's an example of creating (i.e., fabricating) them.

I should point out that if you take this message seriously, then a rational nonsmoker might actually start smoking. After all, according to the message, it's better to smoke yourself than to be exposed to secondhand smoke. The message truly undermines the severe health effects of active smoking because it states that active smoking is less harmful than secondhand smoke exposure. Thus, the statement is not only fallacious, but it is a dangerous one which undermines years of education of the public about the severe harms of active smoking.

While the main reason why I object to the fabrication of the science is that I view it as unethical, I wish to point out that I also think it undermines our cause of protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. It gives the public the impression (rightly so, apparently) that our goal is not just to save lives and prevent serious medical conditions but instead, that our goal is simply to protect nonsmokers from ever having to breathe in a wisp of secondhand smoke or see a smoker. It makes it appear that we are trying to prohibit smoking through the back door and that de facto prohibition is our real agenda, rather than a legitimate public health interest in protecting nonsmokers from a severe health threat.

To use a half-marathon analogy, I feel like I have been running a half-marathon and I get to the finish line and stop, but everyone else keeps running. I thought the goal was to provide a safe working environment for all employees and to protect nonsmokers from a substantial health hazard in certain outdoors locations where they cannot easily avoid tobacco smoke exposure. Instead, the movement just keeps on going, trying to ban smoking in every possible outdoors location and even starting to infringe upon the private home.

I feel all alone at the finish line, wondering where everyone has gone.

The rest of the story is that I have come to the conclusion that the distortion of the science by anti-smoking groups is not merely an innocent mistake or an uninformed interpretation of scientific evidence. It is, instead, a deliberate attempt to promote an extremist agenda by fabricating scientific evidence that will support an agenda that is simply not supported by the scientific truth.

As I prepare for a brief vacation and a half-marathon (and trust me - I'm stopping at 13.1 miles, no matter what anyone else does), this seems like a fitting post with which to close before my summer vacation.

The Rest of the Story will return just after Labor Day, on Tuesday, September 2.

In the mean time, I leave you with this thought: For a movement that is largely based on its differentiation from the tobacco industry -- on its perception as the purveyors of truth and scientific accuracy in contrast to the industry's lies, distortion, and misrepresentation of the science -- it is essential that the movement remain beyond reproach in its scientific integrity.

The tobacco control movement is failing to do that. We are fabricating scientific evidence to support our increasingly aggressive agenda that cannot be justified otherwise.

And you know what? Other than the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH - which has written extensively on this topic) and Smokefree Pennsylvania (which has challenged some of the reliance on shoddy science), no anti-smoking groups are speaking out -- either against the extremist agenda or the fabrication of scientific evidence. The anti-smoking groups are either part of the deception or they are essentially complicit in the campaign of deception through their silence.

The realization I have come to - and it is a sad one for me - is that the misrepresentation of the effects of brief secondhand smoke exposure by anti-smoking groups is not simply due to a series of innocent mistakes. It is not merely an exaggeration of scientific findings. Instead, it represents a fabrication of a body of scientific evidence with a deliberate purpose - to promote an increasingly aggressive anti-smoking agenda that goes beyond protecting people from a significant health hazard as documented by actual science.

I have been very patient and understand and I've tried to use every imaginable rationalization to characterize the distortion of the science. But at this point, it is clear to me that the distortion of the science is not innocent; it is deliberate and it is intended to justify an agenda that could not be justified without scientific fabrication.

The one thing which no anti-smoking group I have challenged has said is that they defend the claims they are making. They recognized that what they are stating is not accurate. Even Stan Glantz admitted to me privately that some of the statements about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke are not accurate. He rationalized them by arguing that we don't have time to present, and the public doesn't have the intellectual capacity to understand, the actual details.

Similarly, Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails admitted to me privately that they don't believe the statistic on their web site is true (120 young people die each day from smoking). And while they claim that the reason they won't take the claim down is that the webmaster is away, it has now been nine months and no job has 9-months per year vacation as a benefit. It is clear that the statistic is still up there because they want it to be up there. They have chosen to knowingly allow a false claim to remain on the site because it is favorable to their cause.

TobaccoScam could have clarified that its statement "20 minutes [of exposure to tobacco smoke] = stiffened, clogged arteries" does not mean what it says: that 20 minutes of tobacco smoke exposure will lead to stiffened, clogged arteries. But it chose not to.

Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails could have corrected its statement that 120 young people die each day from smoking. But it chose not to.

The bottom line is that it can no longer be argued that the deception of the public about the health effects of brief secondhand smoke exposure is accidental. There has been plenty of opportunity to remove, clarify, or correct these claims and for the most part, organizations have made deliberate decisions not to do so.

Even the Surgeon General's office has had plenty of time and opportunity to correct or clarify the Surgeon General's claim that a brief exposure to secondhand smoke is sufficient to cause atherosclerosis and lung cancer. No clarification was forthcoming, and the claim remains on the web site to this day, without any note of correction.

In my opinion, this means we are not just exaggerating or distorting the science - we are lying to the public. And we're doing so knowingly and intentionally.

And I don't think the tobacco control movement can remain as a legitimate and viable one within public health if it continues to do so.

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