Thursday, December 18, 2008

Channel 5 Boston (WCVB) Airs Story on Massachusetts Smoking Ban/Heart Attack Study

Boston University broadcast journalism student Mary Stackhouse has done an excellent investigative report into the Massachusetts smoking ban/heart attack study conducted by the Department of Public Health. The piece appears on the Channel 5 web site, and I encouraged readers to have a look.

The Rest of the Story

There are two important points that I make in the piece that I wish to emphasize here.

First, the study results do not seem consistent with the conclusion that the statewide smoking ban is what led to a decline in heart attack deaths in Massachusetts during the second year post-implementation. If that was the cause, one would have expected to see this decline only in communities that did not already have a smoking ban in place. But the decline occurred in all communities, even those which already had a smoking ban in effect. This, combined with the fact that there was no observed decline in heart disease mortality during the first year following the smoking ban, casts doubt on the conclusion that it was the statewide smoking ban that caused the observed acceleration in the rate of decline in heart disease mortality in the state.

Second, the study is an example of science by press release - an all too common approach in tobacco control these days. The study was released to the media prior to publication or even peer review. However, only the conclusions of the study were released, not the actual methodology or the study text itself. This makes it impossible for the public to scrutinize and evaluate the study's conclusions. Moreover, if any changes are made due to peer review, it will be too late. The conclusions have already been disseminated widely.

We saw the problem of science by press release first-hand with the Scottish smoking ban/heart attack study. There, the conclusions of the study were released to the media prematurely (before review and publication of the paper). Subsequent data now shows that those study conclusions were wrong. But it is too late to correct the findings. And no anti-smoking group (nor the researchers themselves) even seem interested in communicating the truth about the data in the first place. (No - there has been no response to my challenge to report these new data).

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