Accuracy in Media

We are not apologists for smoking. But we are apologists for the truth, and we are committed to reporting the facts. In the current controversy over whether the federal government can and should restrain smoking, especially by young people, a number of figures and statistics have been thrown about as if they were true. They seem designed to scare us, to make it seem as if dramatic federal action is required to “save the children.” One of these frightening statistics is that 3,000 kids begin smoking every day. This claim has been advanced by that phenomenal truth-teller, President Clinton himself.

Columnist Steve Chapman wondered if there was any truth behind this statement, and so he called the White House Press Office to find the source for that estimate. Chapman reports, “I was directed to the Centers for Disease Control, which sent me a 1989 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the study said nothing about children. The 3,000-a-day figure referred to 20-year-olds.” These are not kids; they happen to be adults. Chapman concluded, “There is a technical term for the president?s claim: bald-faced lying.” Chapman?s point is a simple one: if it is true that the tobacco companies have deceived people about the dangers of smoking, then they must be held accountable. But the same standard should also apply to those who are attacking the industry and the product. We should insist on the facts and the truth from both sides.

Here?s another example of peddling falsehoods. The American Cancer Society ran ads in Florida newspaper claiming that secondhand smoke kills 53,000 people a year. The ad said this was more deaths than those who are killed each year from cocaine, crack, heroin, homicide, suicide, car accidents, fires and AIDS. The ad claimed the source of this 53,000 figure was the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, an official government agency.

It turned out that the source was an anti-smoking activist with an axe to grind. The EPA had estimated the number of deaths from secondhand smoke at only 3,000 a year. The American Cancer Society admitted its error and changed the source in the ad. But the Florida newspapers, including the Miami Herald and the Tampa Tribune, never printed a retraction. Wanda Hamilton, who wrote about this controversy for a publication called The Resistance, which defends the rights of smokers, commented, “Even the smoking gun of an outright admission that the citation in the ad was false has left the media barons unmoved.”

It may sound amusing to write about a smoking gun in the controversy over smoking. But this is a deadly serious subject, involving the lives of our fellow citizens. This is why the media have an obligation to report the facts.

Many of those who are waging this anti-smoking crusade have sincere intentions. They really want to spare young people from a bad habit. But others, such as President Clinton, may have ulterior motives. They may see in this campaign an opportunity to expand the scope, power and resources of the federal government. As Steve Chapman says, the tobacco companies and President Clinton should be held accountable for what they do and say. It?s time for balanced coverage.

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