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Anti-smoking activist Dr. Michael Siegel — who worked for two years in the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health — wrote on his Web site, "The Surgeon General's press release distorts the science presented in the report and ends up presenting misleading and inaccurate information to the public."
Anti-tobacco groups, Siegel wrote, "are widely distorting the science to create a more sensational and emotional impact on the public. When this phenomenon goes all the way up to the level of the surgeon general's office, you know you've got a serious scientific integrity problem."
Carmona has adopted an activist, if not necessarily science-based, hard line on other issues, too.
Take the touchy subject of alcohol and pregnancy. In 2005, Carmona revised the official federal government position recommending that pregnant women "limit" the amount they drink, to warning them to abstain from alcohol altogether. But as Carmona's own press release concedes, there's simply no new science to back up that position. There are no studies suggesting that a glass of wine or two per week has any effect on fetal development at all.
The announcement was typical paternalistic public health hype. It overstated the risk, made an overly cautious, superfluous recommendation and then made an unscientific, "for the children"-type appeal to emotion.
A final example is smokeless tobacco. In 2003 testimony before Congress Carmona stated, "There is no significant scientific evidence that suggests smokeless tobacco is a safer alternative to cigarettes." He then called for an outright prohibition on smokeless tobacco products. The remark was so farcically not true, one anti-smoking activist called it "a barefaced lie."
Users of smokeless tobacco—particularly varieties such as the Swedish product "snus"—are less likely to get any form of cancer, and up to 10 times less likely to get lung cancer, than smokers. But you wouldn't know that from government or public health literature. The British medical research group Bio Med Central reported in 2005 that, "A study of 316 Internet Web sites showed that most government, health advice and advocacy Web sites suggested that smokeless tobacco use is as harmful as cigarette smoking, even though the risk is actually extremely small compared to that from smoking."
In this case, Carmona's political posturing in the face of actual science may well be costing lives. Were smokers told the truth about the significantly lower risks associated with smokeless tobacco, many might switch, getting the same nicotine kick at only a tenth of the risk.
None of this is really new. The Office of Surgeon General always has been overtly political, a captive of the most hysterical public health activists. Its only real powers are tongue-clucking and finger-wagging, usually about the latest moral panic, lecturing the American public to knock off its bad habits, lest somebody get hurt. Richard Carmona's tenure was no different, which is why it's laughable to hear him lecture someone else about science.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. This article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.