Professor Michael Siegel (bio) is a doctor, a professor, an enthusiastic supporter of tobacco harm reduction and a tireless exposer of tobacco myths. We are very grateful to Michael for sparing us the time for this interview. If you would like to read more of Michael’s work please check out his Tobacco Analysis blog.
Q: Your blog has set out to reveal examples of the lies and half truths sadly common in the anti-tobacco lobby. Can you tell us why you, a supporter of smoking bans and tobacco harm reduction, have set out to do this?
A: While I am decidedly a strong anti-smoking advocate who has supported smoking bans and testified in numerous lawsuits against the tobacco companies, the basis for my advocacy positions has always been the science. Increasingly it seems that the anti-smoking movement is being driven more by ideology than by science and a strong evidence base.
Part of that ideology is the belief that the ends justifies the means and that it is therefore acceptable to stretch the truth in order to achieve what we see as a noble cause. However, I believe that first and foremost, we are public health practitioners who are serving the public and we must adhere to high standards of ethical conduct and scientific integrity. One of our responsibilities is to accurately convey scientific information to the public. This is necessary not only because it is ethical, but also because our reputation – and our retention of the public’s trust – depends on it.
Perhaps the most interesting example of the dependence upon ideology rather than science and a strong evidence base is the issue of electronic cigarettes. The major national anti-smoking groups have asked the FDA to take these products off the market. This is despite evidence that electronic cigarettes are much safer than conventional cigarettes and much more effective than traditional nicotine replacement therapy products in keeping smokers off cigarettes.
It really comes down to ideology vs. science. The anti-smoking movement’s ideology – which is guided by an abstinence only type of philosophy – just doesn’t have room for a product that looks and acts like a cigarette but happens to be orders of magnitude safer. In this case, the science – the health effects – just don’t matter. The ideology is too deeply ingrained to allow the product to be given a chance of saving lives.
Q: Could you reveal some of the worst examples of the lies you have found?
A: Perhaps the greatest example is the statement, being made by many anti-smoking groups, that a mere 30-minute exposure to secondhand smoke may cause atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). The truth is that it takes many years to develop atherosclerosis. Even among active smokers, you don’t see heart disease until a person has smoked for at least 20 years or more. So it is literally impossible for a single 30-minute exposure to secondhand smoke to cause the arteries to harden.
Another great example is the claim, on the SceneSmoking.org website, that 340 young people die each day from smoking. Smoking typically does not kill what we would consider to be “young people.” Middle-age, sure. But not many “young people” are dying every day from smoking. This is another example where the organization apparently believes that its mission is so important and noble that the facts don’t really matter.
Q: As a result of your campaign for truth, you have suffered personal attacks on your character. Can you tell us about some of these?
A: Just yesterday on my blog, I was accused of having taken money from electronic cigarette manufacturers. Many other anti-smoking advocates just cannot understand that someone could take a position that opposes the orthodoxy of the movement without being on the tobacco industry dole. After questioning some of the incorrect scientific claims that I mention above, I was similarly accused of being a tobacco industry “mole.” I have been expelled from two tobacco control discussion groups because they would not tolerate my dissent from key elements of the dogma of the movement.
Q: What is the motivation behind the mistruths and the attacks on you?
A: On the surface, the attacks are part of the common anti-smoking movement strategy of attacking the dissenter, rather than dealing with the substance of the dissenting argument. But deeper below the surface, I believe that these attacks are occurring because these colleagues of mine recognise that I am right and it is almost like an unconscious guilt reaction that they are displaying.
Q: Moving on, how safe do you think the electronic cigarette is, and how sure of that safety are you?
A: I can’t say how safe the electronic cigarette is, but what I can say is that it is substantially safer than the conventional cigarette. Inhaling nicotine cannot be nearly as dangerous as inhaling nicotine plus thousands of other chemicals, including more than 40 carcinogens. It doesn’t take long-term studies to make that determination.
As David Sweanor astutely pointed out, determining that a tobacco-free nicotine delivering product is safer than a product that delivers nicotine with thousands of tobacco smoke constituents is a fact of basic science, and anyone who challenges such a notion would probably benefit from a remedial course in basic sciences.
Whether electronic cigarettes are safer than conventional cigarettes is really a non-issue. The real questions are how effective the product is in helping smokers keep off cigarettes, how electronic cigarettes could figure into a long-term strategy for promoting smoking cessation, and what specific messages about electronic cigarettes and health would be appropriate to communicate to the public.
Q: Is there a conspiracy against the electronic cigarette and other safe alternatives to smoking, and if so who is behind it and why?
A: I don’t believe there is a conspiracy against the electronic cigarette. I just think there is a lot of ideologically-driven, dogmatic thinking in the tobacco control movement, and that rigid thinking can get in the way of sound public policy. We’ve seen this happen in other areas of public health. Now, the abstinence-only approach seems to be getting in the way of sound policy in tobacco control. You also have to remember that pharmaceutical treatment of tobacco dependence has become the bread and butter of tobacco control.
The tobacco control movement has been largely sustained by funding from pharmaceutical companies. Our national and international conferences are now underwritten by Big Pharma. That financial relationship between the pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco control movement is also playing a role. I don’t think this is happening consciously, but whenever there are strong financial ties like this, it almost certainly creates an unconscious bias.
Q: Finally, can you tell us why legislators are listening to those who are shouting loudest, the health groups, and not those at the cutting edge research of tobacco harm reduction such as yourself, Dr Joel Nitzkin, Dr Laudersson and others?
A: You have to remember that there is also a financial connection between federal and state legislators and conventional cigarette sales. These legislators have tied the fiscal solvency of critical government programs to the continued consumption of cigarettes. Our national system of providing health insurance for children from lower-income families is now dependent upon cigarette smoking. Many states are looking towards cigarette revenues to balance their budgets during these difficult economic times. It is not, therefore, in the legislators’ “best interests” to support a policy that is potentially going to seriously threaten cigarette sales.
Between the influence of Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, it’s going to be very difficult for electronic cigarette manufacturers to get the ear of public policy makers.