Have the Tobacco Police gone too far?
The New Scientist, 01 April 2009 , Issue 2702 - by David Robson
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Editorial: The dangers of inhaling dubious facts)
I'VE been called a traitor," says Michael Siegel, a public-health doctor at Boston University in Massachusetts. "It's been a character assassination." This treatment seems surprising as, reading Siegel's CV, you'd think he was a poster boy for the anti-smoking movement. He regularly publishes research on the harmful effects of passive smoking and has testified in support of indoor smoking bans in more than 50 US cities.
Despite these credentials, Siegel has come under fire from colleagues in the field of smoking research. His offence was to post messages on the widely read mailing list Tobacco Policy Talk, in which he questioned one of the medical claims about passive smoking, as well as the wisdom of extreme measures such as outdoor smoking bans.
In front of his peers, funders and potential future employers, other contributors posted messages accusing Siegel of taking money from the tobacco industry. When Siegel stood his ground, the administrators kicked him off the list, cutting off a key source of news in his field. "It felt like I was excommunicated, says Siegel. "I was shocked: I've been a leader in the movement for 21 years."
Siegel's case is perhaps the most clear-cut example of a disturbing trend in the anti-smoking movement. There are genuine scientific questions over some of the more extreme claims made about the dangers of passive smoking and the best strategies to reduce smoking rates, but a few researchers who have voiced them have seen their reputations smeared and the debate stifled.
Putting aside the question of whether such tactics are ethical, they could ultimately backfire. About half of US states and many parts of Europe do not yet ban smoking even indoors in public places like bars and restaurants, so the anti-smoking movement cannot afford to lose credibility.
On the other hand, in some parts of the US, particularly California, the anti-smoking movement has grown so strong that smoking bans outdoors and in private apartments are in force in a few places, and being considered in more. These measures are at least partly based on disputed medical claims, so it is vital their accuracy be determined. But questioning the orthodoxy seems to be frowned on.
"It's censorship," says Siegel. "We're heading towards scientific McCarthyism."
(Later in the article...)
Siegel says his experience has not damaged his career, and has since set up a fascinating and erudite blog about the anti-smoking movement's extremes.
But Carl Phillips almost lost his job after he questioned the orthodoxy. Phillips is one of a few researchers who favour "harm reduction" strategies in tobacco control (New Scientist, 10 November 2001, p 28). This means promoting smokeless tobacco products - such as chewing tobacco, a form of "sucking" tobacco known as snus, and electronic cigarettes - to allow nicotine addicts to get their fix without many of the risks of smoking. Many anti-smoking researchers are vehemently opposed to such strategies.
Unlike Siegel, Phillips has accepted research grants from the US Smokeless Tobacco Company - a fact he declares on his research papers, and which was approved by his university as they came with no strings attached. This has allowed anti-harm-reductionists to paint him as a tobacco-company stooge, and he has experienced vandalism to a poster paper at a medical conference. After his adversaries threatened to block the school's academic accreditation and cancel funding for other projects, the School of Public Health tried to terminate his contract. Phillips appealed to the university's central administration, however, who overturned the school's decision, and he remains in his post.
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