Monday, April 20, 2009

Smoking Continues to Kill 340 Young People a Day?

According to the web site, run by Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, 340 young people a day continue to die from smoking. As the web site puts it: "Smoking Kills About 340 Young People a Day."

While smoking is obviously a terrible public health problem and it is estimated to cause over 400,000 deaths per year, it is simply not true that 124,000, or 31% of those deaths, occur among "young people." It is rare for smoking to kill people below the age of 40. Most of the deaths from smoking are caused by heart disease, lung cancer or other cancers, and chronic lung disease -- all of these are conditions that generally do not set in until at least middle-age. Only rarely does one see a young adult die from smoking.

This is not to minimize the health effects of smoking; it is merely to point out that the statistic being communicated by this anti-smoking group is factually inaccurate.

The casual observer might understandably surmise that this communication on Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails' web site is simply an honest or careless mistake.

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails has been aware of this inaccurate statistic on its web site since at least October 22, 2007, when I first notified the group of the error. If this were just an innocent mistake, I think it would be reasonable to assume that the organization would quickly change the web page to correct the mistake.

However, as you can see, the "mistake" persists to this day.

In fact, several months after I first wrote to the group, asking why they hadn't yet changed the web page, I was told that the reason for the failure to correct this statistic was that the web master was unavailable (presumably on vacation).

All I can say now is that it's been one heck of a long vacation: from October 22, 2007 to April 20, 2009. That's 18 months - one and a half years!

I would love to have that web master's job.

To state that 340 young people die each day because of exposure to smoking in movies is ludicrous. And patently false.

I really don't understand this need to lie to the public, or to stretch the truth beyond recognition, in order to make a point to the public. Forgetting about my argument that there is no valid scientific support for the claim that smoking in movies leads more than 200,000 kids to start smoking each year, if wanted to accept this statistic from one author, then what would the problem have been in stating that 340 young people will eventually die prematurely due to smoking in movies?

The problem, as far as I can see, is that it would not have been sensational enough. Apparently, it is no longer enough to tell the truth in tobacco control. It is not good enough to accurately represent the science.

You need to lie in order to sensationalize your message. You need to misrepresent the facts. Otherwise I guess you're not doing your job.

Based on the fact that the organization has known about this inaccurate statistic for the past 18 months yet failed to correct it, it seems implausible to me that Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails has any sincere interest in making sure that it communicates truthfully and accurately to the public. If it did, then why would it not have corrected the problem 18 months ago, 17 months ago, or even 16 months ago?

When I find a mistake on my web site, I correct it immediately. I don't wait 18 months. And while it's true that I don't have a web master who I need to contact to make the correction, I find it hard to believe that any web master is completely out of the reach of modern-day communication for 18 consecutive months.

Instead, it seems to me that perhaps the organization just doesn't care about the scientific accuracy of its public claims. After all, the end goal is viewed as a noble one, so what does it matter if you stretch the truth a little?

Unfortunately, I don't support the end policy that this group is working towards, because if the problem is really as great as it is and 248,000 kids each year start smoking because of seeing smoking in movies, then how can Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails possibly support a policy that allows the depiction of smoking in movies if it is historically accurate? If smoking is causing that many kids to eventually die, then what does it matter if the smoking is historically correct or not?

By making an exemption for historically accurate depiction of smoking in the recommended policy of an R-rating for all films that depict any smoking at all, what these anti-smoking groups are actually doing is regulating the artistic expression of film makers, not a health concern. If it were a true concern for health, then it wouldn't matter whether a character smoked in real life or not? The problem would be defined as exposure to smoking in movies, not exposure to historically incorrect or unnecessary smoking in movies. By attempting to regulate only smoking that is deemed "unnecessary," anti-smoking groups are actually regulating artistic expression, not protecting the public's health.

I challenge Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails to either provide the data showing that 124,000 "young people" die each year from smoking or to remove this statistic from its web site.

In the mean time, I'm going to try to find myself a job as a web master for an anti-smoking group, so that I too can enjoy an 18-month vacation. We can call if a sabbatical with time and a half.

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