Accuracy in Media

Special interests were promoting a federal tobacco bill in the name of protecting the children. But the claim about 3,000 kids a day starting smoking was exposed as completely phony. Another claim – that 53,000 Americans were dying every year from secondhand smoke—was also demolished. It turned out that the exact figure was 3,000. And this much-publicized figure, which came from the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, has also been refuted.

In fact, a federal judge recently ruled that the 1993 EPA report including that figure was seriously flawed. U.S. District Judge William Osteen Sr. overturned the report, saying that it had failed to disclose important findings and reasoning; had jumped to conclusions without evidence; and had adjusted its procedures to fit the agency’s conclusions.

This is not to say that secondhand smoke is not bothersome, harmful or offensive, only that it is not a dangerous killer. But the flawed EPA study has already had a major impact. The EPA’s 1993 report caused many state and local governments, as well as private employers, to institute bans on smoking inside offices, stadiums and restaurants. The EPA’s report was also used by trial lawyers trying to shake down money from the tobacco industry.

This is a classic case of junk science. In the words of the Washington Post, the EPA has been found to have “manipulated scientific studies and ignored scientific and statistical practices.” The judge said “there is evidence in the record supporting the accusation that EPA ‘cherry-picked’ its data” to reach a desired conclusion. The Post insisted in a follow-up story that there are many other studies supporting the EPA conclusion on secondhand smoke, but it admitted that proving a link to cancer remains problematic. The paper added that “there’s solid evidence linking environmental smoke to serious respiratory illnesses, especially in children,” and that these concerns may be enough to warrant policies curbing smoking in public places.

That may be the case, but it misses the point. If the government wants to curb secondhand smoke because of professed concern for children, that is one thing. But when it claims a scientific link to cancer deaths, that is quite another. Yet that is what the EPA did in this case. Also troubling is the reaction of the American Cancer Society, which issued a news release after the judge’s ruling saying that, “If a new [EPA] report is issued, it will say the same thing—secondhand smoke is a killer.” Thus, the American Cancer Society has once again prejudged the evidence and has come to an unwarranted conclusion. The group has done a lot of good work in the past alerting the public to cancer dangers, but in this case it is compromising its own credibility with dubious claims.

This wouldn’t be the first time the government has exaggerated a cancer danger. New research publicized in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that the EPA has greatly overestimated the risk of lung cancer from asbestos. That EPA finding led to billions of dollars being spent to remove asbestos from public buildings. It seems as if the EPA is quickly developing a reputation for lying to the American people.

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.