American Cancer Society Admits "mistake" In Ad
Date of original release: 8/10/98
"Secondhand Smoke Kills more Americans each year than cocaine, crack, heroin, homicide, suicide, car accidents, fires and AIDS," the headline of a half-page ad in the March 10, 1998, Miami Heraldscreamed in big, bold letters. Below was a listing for the number of deaths in each category. The only figure in boldface was: "Secondhand Smoke - 53,000."
As someone who has closely followed the scientific claims surrounding the smoking issue, I wasn't particularly surprised to see the 53,000 figure. Though no U.S. government agency publishes or endorses it, this number pops up regularly in anti-tobacco ads whenever and wherever the push is on for a smoking ban. And, indeed, the purpose of the Herald ad was to campaign for removal of the preemption clause in the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act, thus enabling city and county commissions to enact local smoking bans. Predictably, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association were the ad's sponsors.
What surprised me was the citation for the 53,000 figure: "U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ETS Compendium, 1986 data." I knew the "official" EPA number was 3,000, not 53,000, and according to such independent analysts as the Congressional Research Service, even the EPA estimate of 3,000 deaths appeared to be too high, given the available scientific data.
Determined to get to the bottom of the puzzling citation, I phoned the 800 number provided in the ad. It connected me to a voice-mail recording at the American Cancer Society (ACS). I left my name, phone number and a brief inquiry about the EPA citation.
I also e-mailed David Lawrence, publisher of the Miami Herald. Lawrence responded that he would share my concerns with the vice president of advertising, as he did each time I sent him an update.
Several days later, Marcia Nenno of the ACS contacted me. She seemed discomfited by my questions about the citation. First, she said the 53,000 figure was actually from the 1986 EPA risk assessment. Then, she claimed that it was from the EPA report. Finally, she said the source was a Surgeon General's report. Based on my familiarity with those reports, I replied that it was from none of those sources.
She insisted there was documentation and asked if I would like her to send it to me. "Yes, indeed," I responded.
A packet from the ACS arrived more than a week later. The explanation in the enclosed letter was vague at best: "Upon researching this we found that such a Compendium was produced in 1986, thus the statement that the data was 1986 is correct. However, the data was not published until 1988. Enclosed is the 1988 publication that was the basis of the EPA Compendium data: 'An Estimate of Adult Mortality in the United States from Passive Smoking' by Judson Wells."
The Wells article had been published in 1988 all right, but in the journal Environment International, not by the EPA, and the photocopy I was sent bore Wells' name, fax number and the date March 18, 1998, at the top of each page. So much for the convention of actually having a document in hand before citing it as a source. Nothing in the packet pertained to the United States Environmental Protection Agency or the "Compendium."
I followed up with a letter to the ACS and copied the Herald and the Tampa Tribune, which had also run the ad. My letter pointed out that the ACS had not substantiated their claim that the EPA was the source for the 53,000 figure and that the organization could well be guilty of false and misleading advertising.
In a terse reply, Jeanne Lambert, director of communications for the ACS, wrote: "As an earlier letter to you indicated, the source of 'secondhand smoke kills 53,000 Americans each year' as the EPA was correct; however, it was not published in 1986."
I fired off another letter to the ACS. In essence it said that since the ACS had been unable to produce even a single piece of documentation that the EPA published or endorsed the 53,000 figure in 1988 (or any other year), I would file a complaint against the ACS for false and misleading advertising.
Several weeks later, the ACS's final response arrived. "The American Cancer Society will no longer use the Environmental Protection Agency as the source for the statistic because we too have been unable to acquire the documentation to support this citation."
At last, the unambiguous, unvarnished truth -- the ACS had lied in their ad.
However, the letter went on to say: "Any future references to 'secondhand smoke kills 53,000 Americans each year' will be attributed to an article written by Stanley [sic] Glantz, Ph.D., and William Parmley, MD, called Passive Smoking and Heart Disease, Mechanics and Risk published most recently in The Journal of the American Medical Association, April 5, 1995 ...."
So the ACS and their anti-smoking allies will continue to use the 53,000 figure in their smoking ban campaigns, but at least from now on there can be no doubt about its source: an article by Stanton Glantz, notorious anti-tobacco activist and a founder of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. The same Stanton Glantz whose inflated mortality figures on secondhand smoke were rejected by the EPA as too flimsy for inclusion in its own controversial report. The same Stanton Glantz that one of his own -- Mike Pertschuk of the Advocacy Institute -- accused of "ugly, propagandistic distortion."
As for the press, the result was what we have come to expect. Even though both the Miami Herald and the Tampa Tribune publishers and ad directors were copied with all correspondence about the ACS ad, to date neither paper has printed a retraction. Even the smoking gun of an outright admission that the citation in the ad was false has left the media barons unmoved.
Was the exercise worth it? You bet it was. The anti-smoking zealots believe they can get away with saying or doing anything if the subject is smoking. This proves they can't if we remain vigilant.