Monday, October 20, 2008

Canadian Non-Smokers' Rights Association Removes False Accusation Against CAGE, But Fails to Apologize

On September 18, I reported here that the Canadian Non-Smokers' Rights Association (NRSA) had made a false accusation on its website, where it claimed that the group Citizens Against Government Encroachment (CAGE) is a Big Tobacco front group which is being secretly funded by tobacco companies. I argued that since NRSA provided no evidence to back up the accusation, it should retract the claim and apologize to CAGE.

In response to my post, CAGE notified NRSA about the false accusation. In response to CAGE's letter, NRSA examined the website and accusation in question and apparently decided that CAGE was correct and that the accusation was a false and undocumented one. NRSA has removed the accusation from the site. It has re-classified CAGE from being a front group to being an organization that behaves like a front group.

However, NRSA did not apologize to CAGE. Instead, it further attacked CAGE and insulted the group, comparing it to the "Flat Earth Society" and stating that it has no reputation worth saving. As NRSA put it: "How ... could any organization claim that its reputation was damaged when its website contains a sufficient number of passages that are so outside the boundaries of legitimate science that they ensure that the organization has no reputation worth saving? What standard of evidence would be required to substantiate an allegation that the Flat Earth Society could not be damaged by an accidental mischaracterization?"

The Rest of the Story

While I give the Non-Smokers' Rights Association credit for having removed its false accusation, I find it unfortunate that the organization, after having been caught making a false and potentially defamatory accusation, failed to apologize to CAGE. Removing the false accusation is more than NRSA's American counterpart - ANR - would likely do (based on its past behavior, which I have documented on this blog). So for that I give NRSA some credit. However, the failure to apologize to CAGE is inexcusable.

When you make a false and potentially defamatory accusation against a group publicly on your web site, I believe that you owe it to the group to apologize. It is simply the right thing to do. Any organization with scientific integrity and a respect for the truth would be expected to do so. Basic human decency also dictates that one apologize.

Instead of apologizing, NRSA has further attacked CAGE and compared the group to the Flat Earth Society. While the main point of this commentary is to criticize NRSA for its failure to offer an apology, some comment on the merit of its comparison is warranted.

If one examines the CAGE website, one hardly finds the kind of statements that are so far beyond the boundaries of legitimate science as NRSA claims. Instead, one finds a legitimate, well-argued perspective on a variety of public health issues. One may not agree with the perspective and the arguments, but they are hardly based on claims that are well beyond the boundaries of legitimate science.

For example, the CAGE site presents the perspective that in some ways, the obesity "epidemic" is being framed in the wrong way to the public, and that the obsession on weight might be counterproductive. This is a legitimate perspective and happens to be one which I present to my students in my social and behavioral sciences class because it is one which I think they need to consider. By presenting overweight and obesity as a "disease," public health practitioners are arguably adding to the stigma of excessive weight and therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than showing people ways to live healthier lives (ways that revolve around a healthy lifestyle, not a unitary obsession with weight).

Some public health interventions to address obesity, such as BMI report cards where elementary schools are required to send children home with report cards that "grade" children baesd on their body mass index, may actually put children at risk of developing eating disorders. Even if one does not agree with the points that CAGE is making, the perspective is a valuable one that needs to be considered.

CAGE has also presented an important perspective about conflicts of interest in science and questioned the validity of the science behind a number of scientific claims. One - which questioned the conclusion of a study which reported that kids can become addicted to smoking through exposure to secondhand smoke - was a valid criticism which I actually highlighted on my own blog.

Do I agree with everything CAGE has to say? No. But I find that the group generally provides reasonable arguments behind their opinions. And I think that taken as a whole, the web site presents some important perspectives that public health practitioners should consider.

I feel that the comparison to the Flat Earth Society is a rash and incorrect (and unfair) characterization that probably reflects either a failure to take the time to actually read the site or a knee-jerk reaction of attacking anyone who opposes one's own position (a reaction which is all too common in tobacco control).

Most importantly, I think that NRSA (and most other anti-smoking groups) fail to understand that there are groups out there which legitimately present the views of "normal" citizens who are not in any way connected with Big Tobacco or even with the hospitality industry. Not everyone who opposes tobacco control policies is a Big Tobacco front or acting like one.

And here is the critical point: As public health practitioners, we are essentially public servants. We are supposed to be serving all of the public, not just people who agree with our positions. In fact, how we deal with people who do not agree with our positions probably has a far greater impact on our effectiveness in protecting the public's health than how we deal with people who agree with our positions.

Many tobacco control groups are making the unfortunate mistake of confusing the "opposition" with the "enemy." Just because a group opposes tobacco control policies, it does not make the group an "enemy." We must learn to treat opposition groups as just that - the "opposition" to specific policies, but not as the "enemy." In fact, these groups (those which are not front groups) represent the views of members of the public, who are our clients in public health, not the enemy.

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