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Tobacco Control Desperately Fears Dialogue

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Carl V. Phillips Contributor
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Tobacco controllers at the recent World Conference on Tobacco or [sic] Health produced comic irony, various bits of junk science and a real threat to the concept of universal human rights. But they usually get most excited when they are trying to hurt someone, stirring up hatred to rally their tribe. Playing the role of Emmanuel Goldstein for the Three Days Hate in Cape Town was the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, a new independent anti-smoking organization that supports switching to low-risk products. It was created with a huge donation from Philip Morris International. Judging from the dispatches coming out of the conference, the participants were far more interested in attacking FSFW than in all scientific and policy analysis combined. Even their Orwellian statement of “human rights,” which was written mostly at a vague fly-over level, got down into the muck to attack FSFW by name.

The attitude of tobacco control toward any independent research on “their” turf was summed up by a point on one slide at the conference:

Refuse to legitimize a scientific dialogue — From a communications perspective any engagement on a scientific level is a “win.” 

This was in the context of FSFW, but it is tobacco control’s general guiding principle. The statement was accurate at a deeper level than the speaker presumably intended. Tobacco controllers know they cannot afford a scientific dialogue. Half their “science” is sloppy poor-quality junk, and the other half is bald-faced propaganda. Any serious scientist who challenges their work — and is being judged by an audience that is scientifically literate and seeking the truth — will indeed win.

The journal Tobacco Control recently implemented a rule prohibiting its editors from engaging in open dialogue about articles from the journal. This was apparently because one of the editors had been willing to have such discussions on Twitter, and the dialogue inevitably highlighted the errors and poor quality in much of what the journal published.

Tobacco control’s loudest voices are clever marketers, but they are completely inept at scientific analysis. Which is to say, they are masters of the monologue. This evolved because tobacco control is able to dominate an environment that is just competing monologues. Their nearly unlimited resources mean they can simply overwhelm accurate information with a hundred times as much junk science and propaganda. The mainstream media and many politicians are in their pockets. They vilify and intimidate their critics, and they focus on destroying anyone who is an effective voice against them — all the while ignoring the actual analysis and arguments.

It is in this environment that FSFW appeared, fully funded and thus leaping past being a small shop that tobacco control could just squash via their usual politics of personal destruction. Tobacco control cannot just disappear the competition this time, so instead they laid the groundwork for a long war. They gave marching orders to their minions to pretend the research produced by FSFW does not really exist. Tobacco controller billionaire Michael Bloomberg pledged $20 million toward efforts to attack FSFW.  

The sad part about the whole affair is watching pro-FSFW commentators earnestly protest that the Foundation shares the anti-smoking goals of tobacco control, and so the latter should embrace the new contribution. Despite coming from people who have worked in this area a long time, the comments suggest they genuinely do not understand what tobacco control is and does.

First there is the obvious problem that tobacco control does not share FSFW’s mission, which is all about smoking cessation and health outcomes. They are more hostile to products that pose approximately zero risk, which are a much bigger threat to their real agenda — destroying industry and eliminating all tobacco use — than cigarettes are.

Just as important, FSFW daring to enter their tobacco research space is similar to a company trying to compete with the Sopranos’ trash hauling business. Imagine arguing that Tony and company should welcome the competition: Everyone shares the goal of efficiently removing the garbage, right? The real goal of the crime family’s trash business is, of course, creating a facade of a legitimate enterprise and laundering the unearned money they get elsewhere, not unlike the role of research for tobacco control. The business also generates some extra revenue, without having to compete on quality, thanks to having a monopoly maintained by personal threats.

Of course, tobacco control dresses up their defense of their turf in hand-waving claims about not trusting research associated with industry funding (never mind that such research is consistently far more honest and accurate than their own, nor the fact that most of their funding also comes from cigarette sales). This seems to play well with their useful idiots, but that does not mean that any thinking observer should give any credence to this obvious rationalization.

Previously, the independent research operations that challenged the garbage business were tiny compared to Big Tobacco Control. They were just honest researchers who wanted to do good work, who did not want create an army of their own even if they could. The syndicate could easily outmuscle them. There appears to be no documented example of tobacco control using actual physical violence in their attempts to eliminate the competition, but they certainly use every tactic short of that. To offer just one (personal) example, when this reporter was a professor at University of Alberta and started an education effort about the benefits of switching to smokeless tobacco, the Alberta government’s anti-tobacco operation shifted basically all of its efforts to being anti-smokeless rather than anti-smoking. Meanwhile, tobacco controllers across Canada launched attacks on the university, demanding it censor the work of one of its faculty members. Tobacco controllers within the university engaged in a concerted campaign of harassment, the results of which included the human subjects’ committee violating its rules and preventing any research.

But FSFW is too big for that treatment, and its designated mission means it cannot be harassed into working on something else instead. It as if Amazon decided to get into the trash hauling business. The incumbent syndicate might still beat up a few people, but they are not going to shut it down.

Not that they will not try to shut it up.  Bloomberg’s goal of trying to protect his personal anti-tobacco empire is deplorable, but his tactics are sharp. His $20 million is much less than the $80 million per year pledged to FSFW, but it is enough to fund an effective targeted attack. The real question is how well FSFW will employ a similar tactic. As large as their budget is, if it were just used to produce a good and honest monologue, it would still be completely drowned out by the immensely larger tobacco control budget. On the other hand, targeted challenges to the flaws in anti-harm-reduction “research” and propaganda would punch far above their weight.

The targeted challenges that already happen, coming just from a few dozen scientific professionals and hundreds of interested vapers and snusers, have put tobacco control on the defensive. If that were expanded to the scale FSFW could manage, honesty and good research could break tobacco control’s stranglehold on the current monologues. Tobacco controllers would have no choice but to engage in the dialogue that they so rightly fear.

[Disclosure: By coincidence, between the time of first drafting this article and filing it, the author began discussions with FSFW about the possibility of funding research projects. To minimize any conflict of interest and protect confidentiality, no content was changed based on what was learned during those conversations and no comment from FSFW was sought.]

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Carl V. Phillips