Thursday, April 02, 2009

Feature Article in New Scientist Highlights The Rest of the Story About the Tobacco Control Movement

The health feature article in this week's issue of New Scientist highlights the exaggerations being made by anti-smoking groups in their communications regarding the health effects of secondhand smoke, the unsupported conclusions being disseminated regarding the short-term effects of smoking bans on heart attacks, the increasingly extremist agenda of the movement, and the prohibition of dissent within the movement.

The article recounts my recent experiences in the tobacco control movement, including my expulsion from tobacco control list-serves because the administrators did not want me to be able to communicate my dissenting opinions:

"'I've been called a traitor,' says Michael Siegel, a public-health doctor at Boston University in Massachusetts. 'It's been a character assassination.' This treatment seems surprising as, reading Siegel's CV, you'd think he was a poster boy for the anti-smoking movement. He regularly publishes research on the harmful effects of passive smoking and has testified in support of indoor smoking bans in more than 50 US cities. Despite these credentials, Siegel has come under fire from colleagues in the field of smoking research. His offence was to post messages on the widely read mailing list Tobacco Policy Talk, in which he questioned one of the medical claims about passive smoking, as well as the wisdom of extreme measures such as outdoor smoking bans. ... When Siegel stood his ground, the administrators kicked him off the list, cutting off a key source of news in his field." ...

"Siegel's case is perhaps the most clear-cut example of a disturbing trend in the anti-smoking movement. There are genuine scientific questions over some of the more extreme claims made about the dangers of passive smoking and the best strategies to reduce smoking rates, but a few researchers who have voiced them have seen their reputations smeared and the debate stifled.

Putting aside the question of whether such tactics are ethical, they could ultimately backfire. About half of US states and many parts of Europe do not yet ban smoking even indoors in public places like bars and restaurants, so the anti-smoking movement cannot afford to lose credibility. On the other hand, in some parts of the US, particularly California, the anti-smoking movement has grown so strong that smoking bans outdoors and in private apartments are in force in a few places, and being considered in more. These measures are at least partly based on disputed medical claims, so it is vital their accuracy be determined. But questioning the orthodoxy seems to be frowned on. 'It's censorship,' says Siegel. 'We're heading towards scientific McCarthyism.'"

The article goes on to point out the irony of this story, as it used to be the tobacco industry which distorted science and disseminated misleading or unsupported conclusions to the public.

Among the exaggerated claims discussed in the article are the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke (30 minutes of exposure raises a nonsmoker's risk of a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker), the short-term effects of smoking bans on heart attack admissions (Scotland's smoking ban resulted in a 17% decline in acute coronary events [even though national data show little, if any, change in coronary event trends associated with the ban], and the health effects of thirdhand smoke.

Dr. Alan Blum, director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society at the University of Alabama, warns that the tobacco control movement should attend to my criticisms rather censor them, because it risks degrading to the same level of junk science that was used by the tobacco industry in the past: "It is sobering and scandalous to think, if Mike is correct, that our field now is guilty of the same junk science long perpetrated by the tobacco industry."

The article concludes with a quote from Kelley Lee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who says about the anti-smoking movement: "They must be intellectually mature enough to recapture the process of producing sound science. There is no room for mud-slinging."

The article is accompanied by an editorial, entitled "The Dangers of Inhaling Dubious Facts," which questions the strength of anti-smoking groups' conclusions regarding the hazards of thirdhand smoke and warns that if the movement continues to make claims that are not supported by solid science, the public may soon stop believing its messages:

"The evidence that third-hand smoke has any physiological effects is tenuous, yet much of the media - and some health organisations - reported it as fact. It is the World Health Organization's 20th World No Tobacco Day next month, but if claims like these can't be supported by sound science, the danger is that people will stop listening to the message."

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