Reducing morbidity and mortality from tobacco-related diseases is an important public health priority. However, we need to do so using honest and accurate communications, not by misleading the public in order to support a particular policy agenda.
Right now, many anti-smoking groups are making inaccurate health claims to the public regarding the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke. While the known, severe effects of chronic exposure to secondhand smoke justify smoke-free workplace policies, it is not appropriate for public health groups to be scaring the public into thinking that tobacco smoke exposure is worse than it actually is, simply in order to create a more emotional and sensational message.
A current example of one of these inaccurate claims is the statement shown below, which is extracted from a strategy guide produced by the American Cancer Society, entitled "Building Public Awareness About Passive Smoking Hazards." This document is being disseminated worldwide through the GLOBALink website. These claims are being made in the specific context of advising anti-smoking organizations worldwide specifically what to tell the public about the effects of secondhand smoke.
While it may be reasonable to state the immediate effects of secondhand smoke include damaging cell walls (endothelial dysfunction) and thickening of the blood (platelet activation and aggregation), it is absolutely false to state that the immediate effects of secondhand smoke include arteriosclerosis - hardening of the arteries or heart disease.
Atherosclerosis is a process that takes many years to develop. Among active smokers, the process usually takes at least 20 years to develop, often even more. It is extremely rare to see a smoker in his or her 30's with coronary artery disease.
So if it takes 20 or more years for an active smoker to develop coronary artery disease, then how is it possible for a nonsmoker to develop atherosclerosis or heart disease in 30 minutes?
As public health practitioners, we believe that there is a responsibility of tobacco control groups to accurately communicate science to the public. We also believe it is unnecessary to exaggerate, because the known chronic effects of secondhand smoke should be enough. But if we continue to misrepresent the science, the credibility of the anti-smoking movement will be threatened.
Our hope is to restore the tobacco control movement by highlighting the questionable tactics being used, holding the organizations accountable to the public, and putting pressure on the relevant organizations to correct their actions.
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