Saturday, February 14, 2009

SHS studies, science and "denialists"

There are many people, scientists and laymen alike, who believe that tobacco control has become a cult-like movement, driven by ideology rather than science; a faith-based organization unwilling to tolerate dissenting opinion.

In 2003, a study conducted by James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat, declared no association could be found between secondhand smoke and lung cancer or chronic heart disease mortality among non-smokers in California, although it did not rule out a small effect. The study was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal.

The findings of the Enstrom/Kabat study were highly controversial because they were not consistent with commonly held views; they contradicted the existing consensus that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer and chronic heart disease (CHD).

In fact, the study was greeted as heresy by anti-smoker crusaders. The rapid response section of the British Medical Journal was flooded with letters from anti-smoker activists criticizing the BMJ for having the impudence to publish a study which was contrary to the prevailing notion that secondhand smoke was the cause of lung cancer and CHD.

Enstrom and Kabat were attacked for accepting funding from a source funded by the tobacco industry. Because they were viewed as traitors to the cause, the avalanche of criticism tended to discredit Enstrom and Kabat on a personal, rather than a scientific, level. The relative merits of the scientific evidence presented by these two reputable and respected researchers were barely discussed.

The criticism was seen by many as an attempt to suppress legitimate science simply because it didn’t fit the “facts” as established by anti-smoker activists in public health. The opposing viewpoint of Enstrom and Kabat had to be subverted or otherwise publicly compromised to maintain the status of existing consensus.

The criticism was so vehement that it prompted two researchers, Sheldon Unger and Dennis Bray, to write a paper entitled “Silencing the Science”. Their paper contends that scientific debate is being stifled for motives (politics, for example) other than the advancement of science.

And, they’re right.

This is especially true in the area of tobacco control. What was once a legitimate public health initiative, to inform and educate the public about the potential health hazards of smoking, has been turned into a search and destroy mission by anti-smoker radicals. Those who choose to smoke are being subjected to increasingly blatant discrimination in employment and housing.

A public “de-normalization” campaign has been launched to demean and denigrate smokers as nicotine addicted misfits, child abusers and worse; to make them the objects of scorn and ridicule.

But, for their campaign to be successful, the anti-smoker fanatics can’t afford to have any dissenting views, most of all scientific views, obstruct their goal of eradicating smokers from the face of the planet.

Honest researchers who dispute the claims of the anti-smokers are dismissed as cranks or tobacco industry shills. Their reputation and integrity are jeopardized; their sources of funding made vulnerable.

Many scientists and researchers are apprehensive about producing results which conflict with existing doctrine; they perceive their careers are at considerable risk should they buck the dogma of the cultists in the anti-smoker movement formerly known as public health.

And, Enstrom and Kabat, among others, are still under fire from the cultists.

Recently, Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee published an article in the European Journal of Public Health. The article accuses those who do not accept the causal relationship between secondhand smoke and lung cancer/heart disease of being “denialists”. It goes on to equate those guilty of such scientific heresy to those who deny the Holocaust.

Dr. Michael Siegel, himself an anti-smoking activist, has been taking issue with much of the exaggerated and fraudulent science emerging from the anti-smoker cultists. His most recent article discusses the article and his response to the Diethelm and McKee article was published in the European Journal of Public Health.

Dr. Siegel is quite familiar with the dangers of opposing the extremist views supported by some of his colleagues in tobacco control. His integrity has also been questioned, his character maligned and his access to some professional services curtailed because he refuses to toe the line and has chosen to speak out against the lies and deception of the cultists.

In his response to Diethelm and McKee, Dr. Siegel notes: “While I personally believe the evidence is sufficient to conclude that secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer, there are a considerable number of reputable scientists who have come to different conclusions. While I believe those scientists are wrong, I would never argue that they are denialists, nor would I ever compare their dissent with Holocaust denial.”

To equate reputable, respected scientists with those who deny the Holocaust is to compare them to Neo-Nazi thugs who would deny one of the greatest affronts to human dignity in the history of mankind. It is a scurrilous, ad hominem attack which contributes nothing to the scientific debate.

It is, in fact, little more than an emotional appeal to dismiss the legitimate hypothesis of people like Enstrom and Kabat based not on science, but on some implied flaw in their character. It tends to stifle scientific debate rather than encourage it.

The anti-smoker zealots are looking to win by default. They’ve chosen to silence the science by silencing the scientists and researchers who create it. If respectable scientists can be cowered into submission, anti-smokers fanatics will be free to foist off such incredible concepts as third hand smoke on an unwitting public with absolutely no opposition.

Dr. Siegel says: “Tobacco control is becoming a religious-like movement which is guided by ideology and not science. Hopefully, this trend will not spread to other areas of public health.”

I feel his admonition may already be too late. The tactics of the anti-smoker radicals are already being used against other “unacceptable” behaviours, such as obesity and alcohol consumption.

To this old rambler, if there are “a considerable number of reputable scientists who have come to different conclusions”, then the debate on the hazards of secondhand smoke is not over; the evidence is, by definition, inconclusive.

But, more scientists, researchers and the mainstream press have to speak out against the dishonesty in the new anti-smoker cult.

Else scientific “integrity” will go the way of tyrannosaurus rex.

For more information on James Enstrom, his controversial study and some insight into some of the unscrupulous attacks on both he and his co-author Geoffrey Kabat, visit his website. Like Dr. Siegel, he is anti-smoking, but has the courage to stand by his convictions.

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