Second Thoughts About Tobacco Tar


Longtime tobacco researcher Michael Siegel, who started a blog in March, has broken with his fellow anti-smoking activists, at least partly over their habit of using ad hominem attacks to discredit their opponents:

In the 20 years that I was a member of the tobacco control movement, I was led to believe that there were only two sides to any anti-smoking issue: our side and the tobacco industry side. Therefore, anyone who disagreed with our position had to be, in some way, affiliated with the tobacco industry. I was also taught to respond to their arguments not on any scientific grounds or on the merit of their arguments, but by simply discrediting the person by attacking their affiliation with the tobacco companies.

This, Siegel now realizes, was wrong:

As I have found out over the past two decades, there are a lot of individuals who disagree with a number of positions that the anti-smoking movement has taken (interestingly, now I find myself to be one of them). And not all of these individuals are affiliated with, or working for the tobacco industry. As individuals who are not part of a tobacco industry campaign, these people are entitled to express their opinions and their arguments really deserve to be addressed on their merits. At very least, anti-smoking organizations and advocates should not attack these individuals. Attacking their arguments is legitimate, but attacking the individuals, in these cases, is not.

Siegel is especially critical of Stanton Glantz's Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, on whose board he used to serve. He describes an episode in which ANR refused to let him clarify descriptions of two critics of the anti-smoking movement in an article he wrote that was posted on the group's Web site:

I learned that when it really came down to it, ANR was not interested in science and scientific integrity. It was above and beyond all interested in advancing its political objectives. And it would sacrifice anything–even one of its own Board members and his authorship rights and copyright–to do so….

I resigned from the ANR Board because I didn't want to be associated with an organization that put its own political agenda ahead of legitimate concerns for scientific integrity and which ignored basic legal rights of individuals, including its own Board members, in an all-out and self-righteous effort to disparage individuals who disagreed with its own position on the issues.

As the recipent of many tobacco-related ad hominem attacks over the years, I can testify that there have always been a few honorable exceptions to the tendency Siegel describes. I'm glad to see him join them; better late than never.

What's more, Siegel's perspective as an estranged activist who is still determinedly anti-tobacco makes for some interesting analysis. For instance, he parts company with leading anti-smoking groups by criticizing the protectionist bill, backed by Philip Morris but opposed by its competitors, that would give the FDA authority over tobacco products. He questions knee-jerk support for higher tobacco taxes. He opposes obesity litigation. And he has some on-target comments about the federal government's RICO lawsuit against the major cigarette makers, which groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids see as an opportunity to demand all the anti-smoking measures on their wish lists. As Siegel notes, any remedies ordered by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler (assuming the Justice Department wins) have to be forward-looking, aimed at restraining the tobacco companies from committing future RICO violations (various kinds of fraud). It's hard to see how forcing the industry to subsidize smoking cessation programs, the main idea under discussion, qualifies as a RICO-authorized remedy.

[Thanks to Linda Stewart for the tip.]