02 September 2010

Just for the record - documenting the movie lie

As I have written about several times this year, the claims about smoking in movies causing a large portion of smoking initiation are a great example of the "if only..." claims made by anti-tobacco extremists to support more and more draconian manipulations of society.  The usual script is "if only X were changed then smoking/tobacco use would be reduced by Y%".  Of course, because the extremists wield so much power, X is often changed in just the way they demand and then ...... nothing changes, much to the surprise, of, well, no one at all.  Why no surprise?  Because the extremists who made the claim conveniently forget they ever did so, and rewrite their history to exclude it.

These are not the grossest most malicious type of lies (see the comments from this TobaccoHarmReduction.org blog post for an interesting discussion related to that point), but it is probably the second-most harmful set of extremist claims from the narrow perspective of public health (the most harmful being the lies that attempt to discourage smokers from adopting harm reduction).  To make it a bit more difficult for them to pretend they never said it, I and others are making a habit of documenting these claims.  So in case there is any confusion about it in the future, Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada recently published the claim (pdf) that baldly stated that just under half of all smoking among 15 to 19-year-olds in Canada was caused by them seeing smoking in movies.   Note that this would mean that pretty close to half of all smoking was caused by film portrayals among those in their 20s and 30s and however long movies have had this thrall, since most smokers start during this age range.

So, they are effectively claiming that once smoking in films is gone, smoking incidence (initiation rate) will have dropped by almost half compared to the bad old days, even after controlling for the effects of all other anti-smoking efforts, and so prevalence (usage rate) will be lower by half in the cohorts that were teenagers after smoking was removed from films.  It is not necessary to go into the use of statistics (either worthy of a failing grade in an intro class or highly skilled, depending on one's take on how statistics should be used) employed to cook up this claim.  They made the claim, clearly an unambiguously, burying the statistics that were used to rationalize it.

Anyone want to place a little wager in support of their prediction?

I am sure they would not do so.  They are assuming that by the time their prediction is shown to be wrong they will have skated on to some other, quite possibly equally nutty, claim that they can trick the mainstream media into repeating.  Indeed, it is not necessary to wait very long to show they are wrong.  Since most smoking has been eliminated from movies over the last decade, we should have seen a huge drop in smoking initiation according to their prediction, even after subtracting the reduction attributable to the effects of increased taxes, education campaigns, etc.  Since the actual drop has been quite a bit smaller than the movie model would predict, it must mean that in spite of all the other anti-smoking efforts, smoking initiation would have dramatically increased had it not been for getting rid of it in movies.  Whew!  Canadian youth sure dodged a bullet there.

I expect that some of you are saying "so what?", since Physicians for Smoke Free Canada is one of the more dishonest anti-tobacco extremists groups.  Granted, this publication may reflect their particularly poor judgment: other groups who have touted similar claims have avoided publishing a 40 page report in PDF, which is much harder to make disappear than an html page or a billboard.  But this claim has been made by most of the other Tobacco Drug War types also, and even by the otherwise respectable health groups who are willing to squander their credibility on anti-tobacco extremism. 

However, I have to say that  this one strikes me as strange even for them.  I understand why they might make up any claim they can think of to get taxes increased -- they get to keep a lot of the money, after all.  I have written about why they are so desperate to discourage harm reduction.  But why risk burning quite so much credibility over what appears in movies?  Even if it really mattered, there is not really much fight left to fight:  They have already succeeded in bullying studios into removing almost all smoking.  Are they really that desperate to find an excuse for why their last decade or two of promises to dramatically reduce smoking have failed?

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