Sunday, October 17, 2010

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Reporting as "Science" Claims from Press Release by Institute that Markets Floor Mops

The anti-smoking group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) is passing off as "science" exaggerated and inaccurate claims made by another anti-smoking group (ASH) that are based solely on a press release issued by an institute that markets floor mops.

As a professor, I see all sorts of poor references for statements made in students' papers. However, I don't think I've yet seen anything as shoddy as what ANR is doing. On its information page related to thirdhand smoke, ANR has reported the wildly exaggerated and inaccurate claim by ASH that merely touching a smoker's clothes causes massive skin and nerve damage to young children.

I can't tell you how many times I have been working in the emergency room and seen a young child brought in with severe skin injury, and I asked the parents what caused it and they responded: "I am a smoker and little Johnny accidentally touched my shirt."

Even setting aside the gross exaggeration of the actual press release, relying upon just a press release, without examining the underlying study, is negligent. And in this case, it's even worse scientific negligence because there is no underlying study available to scrutinize and the press release comes not from an academic institution, but from an institute that studies and markets various forms of textiles, including new improved floor mops.

The entire point of the study in the first place was to develop evidence that could be used to scare parents who smoke about the potential hazards of their children touching their clothing so that they would buy special protective clothing that purportedly neutralizes any toxins in the clothing. This is hardly an objective scientific study to begin with.

But even more importantly, the study did not demonstrate or even examine actual clinical effects of touching the clothes of a smoker.

The Rest of the Story

This story shows how much tobacco control science has deteriorated. During the years during which I served on the Executive Board of ANR, we would never have disseminated information from a press release issued by a floor mop company.

Instead, we would have carefully scrutinized the actual study to make sure that the evidence was solid before reporting it to the public.

One possible reason for the deterioration of the scientific rigor of the movement is that the tobacco industry is no longer holding anti-smoking groups accountable for their statements. Back in the 1990s, we knew that if we made a statement to the public, the tobacco industry would scrutinize it and challenge it publicly if there were any weaknesses in the scientific support for the claim. That is no longer true, as the industry apparently made a decision (at some point around 2000 or 2001) to no longer monitor and challenge anti-smoking groups' claims. Left to their own devices, these groups are now willing to report anything, even if there is no scientific basis for the claim.

It's difficult for me now to understand the point of my research on secondhand smoke. If we are going to go ahead and report ridiculous claims - such as the idea that touching a smoker's clothes can lead to massive skin and nerve damage - without any scientific support other than a press release from a mop company, then what reason is there for me to continue to study the health effects of secondhand smoke, or thirdhand smoke for that matter? Why is research necessary if we are going to say anything we want about the health effects of secondhand and thirdhand smoke? What would be the point of the research?

Please understand that I agree with the majority of the information that ANR disseminates about the very real hazards of secondhand smoke. But even if just a few claims that ANR makes are hysterical - such as the extreme dangers of touching a smoker's clothing - the public may very well dismiss everything that ANR says, even the claims that are well-supported by scientific evidence.

If, to educate the public about thirdhand smoke, ANR is willing to rely upon a press release - in the absence of any published study - from a mop company, then why should the public have any faith that ANR is reporting the scientific evidence on secondhand smoke accurately?

What makes this problem most damaging is the fact that these groups will not retract or correct their claims, even after the lack of scientific support is pointed out to them. I have already informed ANR about the lack of scientific support for the "dangerous clothing" claim, but they still have the claim up on the web site. And ASH will likely respond not by retracting the claim, but by reiterating it.

It is one thing to make a mistake because of carelessness or errant interpretation of a technical study, but it is another to refuse to correct the claim after the mistake is pointed out. I wouldn't have such a problem with what these groups are doing if they were willing to update their web sites and to correct the information. But they have developed this stubbornness where they refuse to acknowledge that they ever make a mistake.

I acknowledge that I've made a lot of mistakes. But when they are pointed out, I correct them immediately. Why don't these anti-smoking groups do the same?

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