Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Without Evidence, Anti-Smoking Advocates Should Not Question the Integrity of Private Citizens by Insinuating that They May Be Taking Tobacco Money

Yesterday, I reported that Tim Filler, who is a steering committee member of Smoke Free Indy, sent a communication to the national smoke-free advocate list-serve maintained by Americans for Nonsmokers Rights (ANR) in which he insinuated that Michael McFadden - an opponent of smoking bans - may be taking money from tobacco companies. The intent of the communication appeared to be to suggest to advocates facing McFadden in "battle" that they discredit McFadden by linking him in some way to the tobacco industry, in hopes that policy makers would view him as a tobacco mole rather than a private citizen who is sincerely representing his own personal views.

In this commentary, I opine that it is inappropriate for anti-smoking groups or advocates to personally attack the integrity of private citizens like McFadden by insinuating that they may be affiliated with Big Tobacco unless they have documented evidence to support their suggestion.

The Rest of the Story

To understand my views, perhaps it is helpful to start by explaining the way in which I see tobacco control. I see tobacco control as a part of public health. The first class I ever took on tobacco (taught by one of my heroes - Dr. Tom Novotny - at UC Berkeley) was entitled: "The Public Health Practice of Tobacco Control." I sincerely believe that tobacco control is supposed to be a part of public health.

As such, I think that anti-smoking advocates like myself need to view ourselves first and foremost as public health advocates. By definition, this means that we are working to improve the health of the public. The public is not restricted to smokers or nonsmokers. It is not restricted to people who support smoking bans or those who oppose such bans. The public includes everyone. We are charged with serving everyone in the public, not just people who happen to agree or disagree with certain positions that we have adopted.

Therefore, our relationship with private citizens is one that needs to be treated carefully. We should not be in the business of attacking private citizens and maligning their character and integrity simply because they hold an opposing opinion about a tobacco control policy.

We are, however, fighting the tobacco industry and it is appropriate to educate policy makers about the financial connections between smoking ban opponents and the tobacco companies when such connections exist. The consideration of the scientific issues by policy makers takes on quite a different picture when they know that a particular argument is being offered by someone who is being paid by the tobacco industry to offer that opinion. In essence, that individual represents an arm of the tobacco industry and they cannot be viewed as speaking solely on their own behalf. So if there is documented evidence that an individual is a tobacco mole, then it is fine to point that out.

However, if we do not have evidence that an individual is funded by Big Tobacco, then I believe it is wrong to throw out the suggestion that the person may be a tobacco mole just because we want to discredit them because they oppose our position.

The integrity of practicing public health includes having a respect for individuals. This respect should not disappear simply because an individual opposes our position. Where the tobacco industry is extending itself into the debate by paying individuals to make their arguments for them, it is a different story. But without evidence that a person is such a tobacco lackey, we really need to show respect and courtesy to all members of the general public. And that includes not suggesting that they may be funded by Big Tobacco, which questions their character and their integrity, unless we have evidence to document that suggestion.

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