Several people have sent me this FOIA-disclosed email, implicitly suggesting I write about it. In it, University of Kentucky professor Ellen J Hahn writes about my friend Brad Rodu, a prof at rival University of Louisville. The context was not reported, but the email seems to have been sent to some local health officials, and was presumably intended as an attack to try to prevent them from learning something (which was undoubtedly true) from Brad about harm reduction. Hahn wrote:
Please note the [sic] Dr. Rodu is on the Board of Directors for US Tobacco and has funding from the smokeless tobacco industry. He is a big supporter of use of smokeless tobacco to quit smoking.Brad is quite proud of the latter characterization, and discloses his funding much more aggressively than anyone I know (and far far far more readily than the anti-tobacco people do). But the first bit, about being on a board, has been characterized as libeling him. The claim is false, but while I am no lawyer, I really do not think that merely giving someone credit for holding a position, grant, etc. that they do not have is libel. If we call that, or the false statement that someone has funding from industry, libel per se then we are implying if it were true, it would be crime or at least a terrible embarrassment. Neither of those is true. Perhaps if someone was well-known for stating that he does not take industry funding, and then someone claimed otherwise, it would be an explicit accusation of lying, which could be considered libel. But otherwise it is best not to fall into their trap of implying that corporate efforts to support honest research and THR are a bad thing.
On the other hand, Hahn probably thought such board membership was at least as bad as lying, so maybe its libel-ness should be judged by the standards of the writer. For example, if someone claimed:
Ellen J. Hahn, a University of Kentucky professor who actively opposes tobacco harm reduction, received competitive grants from a pharmaceutical company that makes nicotine abstinence aids and a cigarette company that is not moving into the low risk tobacco business, both of whom stand to lose business if the public health benefits of THR are realizedshe might consider it libel even though it is merely giving her credit she does not deserve. Of course, I am not claiming that -- I have no idea if she has ever received such grants -- so, gee, I hope no one takes that paragraph out of context. Just in case someone wants to, I had better rephrase it using a trick I learned from the tobacco control people:
It is worth considering the possibility that Ellen J. Hahn, a University of Kentucky professor who actively opposes tobacco harm reduction, has received funding from pharmaceutical companies that makes nicotine abstinence aids and cigarette companies that is not moving into the low risk tobacco business, both of whom stand to lose business if the public health benefits of THR are realized. She certainly sounds like one of those people who is being paid to opposed legitimate public health efforts.
But I have not gotten the really important, and even somewhat funnier, bit. I noted that Brad would never have bothered to deny he was on the board of "US Tobacco". Among the very good reasons for that is that there never was a major company called "US Tobacco". There was "United States Tobacco" until 2001, when they changed their name to "US Smokeless Tobacco". Hahn's email was written in 2010, so even if she started writing about this back in the days of the old name (that she only got somewhat wrong) you would think she would have adjusted sometime in the 21st century. This might seem like a petty distinction, but keep in mind that this was not an ongoing correspondence about a topic in which abbreviations might creep in. It was a one-off statement of fact, intended as an accusation, and so obviously called for getting the statement just right. Presumably, then, the error reflects the fact that she did not know what she was talking about.
The bigger problem, that proves she did not know anything about the topic is that UST (their stock ticker and typical shorthand for that company) was acquired by Altria and integrated into that company and put under its board of directors; this was completed in 2009, as anyone writing in 2010 would have known. At least anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the world of tobacco would have known it, and Hahn signed her letter with "Director, Tobacco Policy Research Program" and "Director, Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy", so she seems to be claiming she is an expert in the matter.
So, Hahn did not commit libel. She just committed the usual factual sloppiness that is common among the scientific "experts" involved with tobacco control when trying to further their cause, ignoring science and other sources of fact and disciplined reasoning in favor of just saying anything they think might help their case. And furthermore, it is not even an exceptional case of that by the standards of the tobacco control "research" crowd. It is important to make this distinction, because these people do commit libel sometimes, and we should reserve the term for those occasions so it does not get worn out. As for accusing them of simply not knowing what they are talking about and saying anything they think will further their cause without regard to its accuracy, well, there is no way to avoid wearing those out.