If I am going to defend a public health heretic, I’d better get my disclaimers out on the table at the outset. The tobacco habit is among the world’s top public health threats and the purveyors of the deadly products that cause it have a lot to answer for. They belong in jail. As a public health scientist, I’ve never taken a penny from Big Tobacco and never will. But as a scientist I cannot fight them with half truths or lies any more than I can fight torture by torturing someone.
Religion distorts science and I’m not an adherent of any religion, including cults within academic public health. Cults like we find in the tobacco control community. The heretic they are trying to burn at the academic stake is Professor Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health. His heresy was to publicly criticize the anti-smoking True Believers for blatant mistruths.
Here’s the statement Siegel objected to:
Even for people without such respiratory conditions, breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly. For example, the Centers for Disease Controls [CDC] has warned that breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes (less than the time one might be exposed outdoors on a beach, sitting on a park bench, listening to a concert in a park, etc.) can raise a nonsmoker’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker . (Action for Smoking and Health)
To say that breathing a half hour of second hand smoke raises a person’s risk to the level of a smoker is patently absurd. Siegel rightly challenged it:
“Either provide the evidence to back up ASH’s assertion that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases the fatal heart attack risk of nonsmokers to the same level as active smokers, or else apologize to me for having improperly suggested that I am criticizing anti-smoking organizations for no valid reason.”
“I am challenging TobaccoScam, as well as other advocates and anti-smoking groups which have attacked me for criticizing what I believe are highly deceptive public communications, to provide evidence of each of the following: 1. Please document that the CDC has warned that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases a nonsmoker’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to the same level as that of active smokers. 2. Please provide the scientific evidence to back up the assertion that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases a nonsmoker’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to the same level as that of active smokers.” (Siegel’s blog, The Rest of the Story)
The tobacco companies are World Class Liars. You don’t need to fight them by being a liar, too. The case against smoking, whether first hand or second hand, is overwhelming. Smoking kills. But I have no respect for mendacious and stupid zealotry. You can’t be on the Side of the Angels if you are dishonest.
Because of their lack of respect for the truth, prominent members of the tobacco control community are in turn losing the respect of the academic community. Even as they try to isolate Mike Siegel, they are finding he can’t be isolated because most public health scientists, not blinded by their own zeal to rid the world of a true scourge, agree with Siegel, not his critics. He will soldier on despite being excluded from their inner circle. And he’ll do it with intellectual honesty.
Indeed, intellectual honesty seems to be the missing ingredient these days. I want to stop smoking as much as any one in public health. 160,000 people will die of lung cancer this year, primarily because of smoking. Because I believe that doesn’t mean I’ve checked my standards as a scientist at the door.
You can read all the sordid details at The Rest of the Story:Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary.