The Strategic Value of Scary Lies


By Michael Siegel 's count, at least 68 anti-smoking groups are falsely claiming that a half-hour's exposure to secondhand smoke can cause atherosclerosis and heart attacks. He traces the hoax to an "internal strategy document" produced by the American Cancer Society, the International Union Against Cancer, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The groups urge activists to promote smoking bans by emphasizing "the immediate effects of secondhand smoke," including "cardiovascular problems such as damage to cell walls in the circulatory system, thickening of the blood and arteries, and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) or heart disease, increasing the chance of heart attack or stroke." According to the document, an effective pro-ban message "conveys the fact that even short periods of exposure are harmful"; "evokes an emotional reaction from the use of scientific terms"; "utilizes startling and memorable imagery"; and "clearly states the risk of grave health conditions such as heart attacks and strokes."

Siegel's conclusion:

This appears not to be simply an innocent misinterpretation of scientific evidence. Instead, it appears to be an intentional manipulation of people's emotions through the manipulation of scientific findings in order to make public claims that are more startling than they would otherwise be, in an effort to promote a desired public policy outcome….

There are really only two possibilities I can think of to explain what is happening.

One possibility is that anti-smoking groups are lying to the public about the science in order to promote smoking bans. If this is the case, then we face an ethical crisis. Such misconduct would represent a serious violation of accepted ethical standards of public health practice.

The second possibility is that anti-smoking groups are not lying, but that they actually believe that hardening of the arteries can occur in 30 minutes. If this is the case, then we face a crisis of scientific credibility.