Monday, September 21, 2009

More suspect science to justify smoking bans

Here we go again! Blaring headlines from the press declaring smoking bans an unqualified success. “Smoking ban has led to dramatic fall in heart attack rates” reads one; “Heart attacks plummet after smoking ban” reads another. The headlines say it all. Or do they?

Researchers,” claims a Mail OnLine article, “say the number of heart attacks in England plummeted by 10 per cent in the year after the ban was imposed in July 2007.”

And, they offer as evidence . . . the unsubstantiated claims of anti-smoker researchers. Uh-huh. The Mail OnLine article points out that the study itself will not be released until sometime next year. So the allegations of the researchers are unverified, have yet to be peer reviewed and remain unpublished by any reputable medical journal. Yet, journalists are ready to distribute the results of the study as fact.

The Daily Mail article notes: “Anna Gilmore, from Bath University, is leading the research into heart attack rates in England.” But, Anna Gilmore is not simply a researcher “from Bath University.”

Reviewing her profile on the University web site finds the following: “I am a member of various expert groups including the WHO Expert Committee on tobacco industry interference with policy, the Royal College of Physician’s Tobacco Advisory Group, the Council of ASH and the South West tobacco control alliance strategy group. I am also Theme director and Specialist Faculty Adviser for UICC’s Tobacco Academy and from January 2009 will move from the Editorial Advisory Board of Tobacco Control to become one of the journal’s senior editors.”

Among her funding sources, she lists: “The Health Foundation, Cancer Research-UK, Smokefree Partnership, Department of Health, US National Institutes of Health, European Commission, Canadian Institute of Health Research. Recent consultancies for the American Cancer Society, the Union (on behalf of the Bloomberg Global Initiative To Reduce Tobacco Use) and the Polish Health Promotion Foundation.

Now, after reviewing her profile and funding sources, a laymen might be forgiven for suspecting that Ms. Gilmore has competing interests which could make her research somewhat slanted.

That doesn't mean that her research is deliberately biased. But, given her professional associations, it's obvious she has strong personal opinions on the subject matter. And, for a journalist to ignore the distinct possibility of bias and print her uncorroborated claims as fact is irresponsible.

And, in this case, the journalist, as is the case in most such studies, made no effort whatever to present his story in a balanced fashion. Only anti-smoker activists were quoted in his article

John Britton, identified as a Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies at Nottingham University: “We always knew a public smoking ban would bring rapid health benefits, but we have been amazed by just how big and how rapid they are.”

Ellen Mason, identified as a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, is also quoted: “Exposure to cigarette smoke induces rapid changes in blood chemistry, making it much more prone to clotting. In someone who has narrowed or damaged coronary arteries, smoke exposure can tip the balance and cause a heart attack.”

Not a single dissenting voice. Not a single question raised as to the validity of Gilmore's conclusions. Of course, no one could possibly offer any informed criticism of the study itself, since it hasn't been published or otherwise made public yet.

And that, apparently, is the point. Without access to the study and the data it contains, no one can argue with the conclusions claimed by Ms. Gilmore. And, since the study won't be released until next year, Ms. Gilmore is free to make whatever claims she chooses in the interim with no possibility of censure.

It's a process Dr. Michael Siegel refers to as “science by press release”.

The conclusions of a study are released to the media and distributed to the public prior to peer review or publication At that point “it is impossible to judge whether the conclusions of the study are valid or not. And if the conclusions turn out to be unwarranted, then it will be too late to reverse them. The media have already disseminated the conclusion widely. Any correction given down the road would have little effect.”

Based on data obtained from other sources, Dr. Siegel and author Christopher Snowdon (Velvet Glove, Iron Fist) have already taken issue with the 10% decline claimed in the Gilmore study.

Says Dr. Siegel: “Unfortunately, because this is science by press release, we have no idea of how the researchers came up with their 10% figure, what methods they used, what data this figure is based on, and whether there is any validity to their conclusion that the observed decline in heart attacks is attributable to the smoking ban, rather than to the established secular trend of declining heart attacks over the past seven years in England.”

Science by press release is a dishonest way of presenting “scientific” information to the public. In fact, according to the Times OnLine, “Gilmore’s research is incomplete and she emphasizes the final results for England will not be published for several months.”

Incomplete? But, she's already drawn her conclusions. The press has already informed the public. Just when did Ms. Gilmore arrive at her conclusions? Before the study began perhaps?

It's sad to see the scientific process subverted to justify smoking bans and other discriminatory practices directed at smokers. It's even more disconcerting to see the media complicity implicit in the tactic of “science by press release. But, I wonder how long it will be before an indifferent public grows wise to the subterfuge?

Dr. Siegel concludes his latest post on this issue by saying: “The scientific integrity of the tobacco control movement is imploding before my very eyes.”

Uh-huh. My question for the Doc. What scientific integrity?

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