Monday, November 23, 2009

On National Tobacco List-Serve, Anti-Smoking Group Insinuates that Michael McFadden is a Tobacco Lackey, But Offers No Evidence or Documentation

In a communication sent out to many smoke-free advocates on a national tobacco control list-serve, Smoke Free Indy (the coalition that is pushing for a workplace smoking ban in Indianapolis) insinuates that Michael McFadden (an activist with the Pennsylvania Smokers Action Network and regular commenter at The Rest of the Story) has received tobacco industry funding for his efforts to fight smoking bans and that he therefore is essentially working for the tobacco companies -- a tobacco industry lackey so to speak.

According to the communication:

"Some of you may have heard of Michael McFadden, who is a long-time opponent of tobacco prevention policies from Pennsylvania who also vociferously and continually says he “has no links in any way to the tobacco industry.” McFadden posts on newspaper message boards and in blog comments across the country with messages critical of tobacco prevention policies, such as smokefree workplace laws, and spreading the misinformation we see from tobacco industry allies in states and cities across the country. McFadden has taken issue with any suggestion that he might have any links in any way to the tobacco industry, even to the point of posting the following on his website about something he wrote in 2001: "The editorial by activist Michael McFadden below was selected by the Americans For Nonsmokers Rights Foundation as being worthy of inclusion on its ‘Tobacco Industry Tracking Database.’ Mr. McFadden has no links in any way to the tobacco industry, but by including him, and others who dare to express similar opinions, on their database they perform a de-facto smear against his integrity.”

"So, with all the umbrage being taken by McFadden to the suggestion that he might be a tobacco industry ally or be getting assistance from the tobacco industry in his efforts, it would be surprising to find McFadden writing to a tobacco company to ask for help to get the resources to do the kind of undermining of tobacco prevention policies that he attempts to do, right? Well, be surprised then. Or not. According to internal tobacco industry documents, in March of 2000, Michael McFadden wrote to RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company specifically for the purpose of soliciting “resources/help” to fight local smokefree ordinances. He specifically asks for information regarding research that would help “the fight against antismokers” [that’s what he called supporters of smokefree policies]. McFadden also asks for the tobacco company’s help getting in contact with other local opponents of smokefree policies to facilitate communication between these smokefree opponents."

The Rest of the Story

I don't quite understand the values that would lead an anti-smoking group to engage in this personal attack against an individual who has not received funding from the tobacco industry. Moreover, the communication admits that Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, through its Tobacco Industry Tracking Database, is suggesting that McFadden is "getting assistance from the tobacco industry," something which is demonstrably false. Essentially, this comes very close to, if not crossing the line into being a defamatory statement.

The fact that McFadden once asked R.J. Reynolds for support is immaterial to the suggestion that he is getting assistance from the industry. RJR rejected his request. The fact that he asked for money does not mean that he received money and thus is affiliated with the industry. The American Legacy Foundation also asked R.J. Reynolds for money; we would hardly argue that Legacy is being financially assisted by RJ Reynolds (actually, all of Legacy's money comes from the industry, if the truth be told).

Moreover, the document to which Smoke Free Indy is referring is not a request for money. It is simply a request for research information. If writing to the tobacco companies for information makes one a tobacco industry ally, then I guess I must be a strong ally. Because I've written to the tobacco companies for information far more than Michael McFadden. I regularly corresponded with tobacco companies to obtain various types of information, most typically the industry's Tax Burden on Tobacco reports which document state-specific cigarette consumption, a very useful piece of information in my research.

I suggest that anti-smoking groups and advocates refrain from making potentially defamatory statements (attacks) against individuals who are in fact private citizens in the absence of documentation that they have received tobacco funding. If they do not have the evidence, then it is defamation of character to suggest that the individual is a tobacco mole. And they should not be engaging in potentially defamatory behavior.

Remember, one of the things that supposedly separates the anti-smoking groups from the tobacco industry is that they don't engage in personal attacks against private citizens, even if they disagree with anti-smoking positions. If ANR or Smoke Free Indy have documentation that McFadden is a tobacco industry mole then fine, they can publicize the fact that he is funded by the industry. But in the absence of such documentation, these groups have no business insinuating that he is anything other than a private citizen. These groups are in no position to insinuate that he is receiving or has received funding from the tobacco industry. That would be defamation of character, and it is not something these groups should have any part of as public health organizations.

This tactic of attacking anyone who opposes anti-smoking policies by accusing them of taking tobacco money and being affiliated with the industry is an all-too-common one. It's fine if these groups have documentation to back up their accusations, but if not, then it is inappropriate for them to level the attack.

If anything, the document to which Smoke Free Indy refers demonstrates that McFadden is not funded by Big Tobacco. If the companies had written back to him and cut him a check, we would have expected to see some positive response to his inquiry. The absence of such a response should have indicated to ANR (and to Smoke Free Indy) that the request was ignored, and that McFadden remained as just a private citizen working on his own to support smokers' rights. We may disagree with his opposition to smoking bans, but we have no right to falsely accuse him of taking tobacco money.

Incidentally, Michael's placement in the Tobacco Industry Tracking Database puts him in good company. I appear in the database as well, due to my having opposed a number of extreme tobacco control policies. You see, while I support bans on smoking in all workplaces, including bars and casinos, and although I testified against the industry seven times, including a landmark case that resulted in a $145 billion verdict against the companies, that isn't quite enough. I didn't buy the entire agenda; thus, I am a tobacco industry ally who must be tracked in the database.

Michael - welcome to the club.

ADDENDUM -- November 23, 12:52 p.m.: Tim Filler, the author of the communication, informed me that his intent was for the communication to represent his own personal attack on McFadden, rather than an attack by Smoke Free Indy. I tend to think that since Filler is on the Steering Committee for the group, his statements reflect on the group as a whole, but nevertheless, he would like his statements to be construed as coming from him as an individual. I don't think it matters. The point is that this is what I would consider to be unethical behavior, as it is attacking a private citizen and making a false insinuation that he is associated with the tobacco industry.

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