Unhealthful News 36 – Will health writers ever figure out that all governments lie?

I was in New York a couple of days ago and enjoyed the juxtaposition of talk of the brand new law against outdoor smoking and hanging out with people who chose to defy even the indoor ban, demonstrating that there is really no problem getting away with that.  This morning, the New York Times, usually a friend to nanny state measures, editorialized against the new law, which bans smoking in city parks, beaches, and even bits of sidewalk that are designated as plazas, like Times Square.  Others have written at lot about the wisdom and ethics of the law itself – apparently none of it positive except what was written by the anti-smoking activists themselves – so I will not repeat that here.  I will mention one colleague’s observation, that the fact that enforcement falls to park authorities instead of the police could turn out to be rather amusing.  Instead I will focus on this series’ angles.

Not only did the NYT editorialize against the measure this morning, invoking the specter of prohibition (bringing to mind my own brief experience with a smoke-easy, to say nothing of figuring out what kind of untouchable park rangers are needed to deal with scofflaws who just walk away rather than accepting their summonses) and even suggesting that the burden on smokers is already unreasonable, but the news article from two days ago also largely avoided reporting unhealthful news. 

There is no evidence to suggest that passers-by suffer any health effects from someone smoking in a park (indeed, the support for the claim that constantly living in a house with a smoker causes measurable health effects for adults is weak).  Shockingly, the NYT did not claim otherwise.  The news article emphasized the matter was most interesting as a struggle over liberties and the appropriate role of government, quoting those who expressed some serious concerns.  Even the quote from nanny-in-chief Mayor Bloomberg who supported the measure seemed to be entirely about the aesthetics of smelling smoke and litter.  Perhaps few would think that these concerns justify such restrictions, but at least they are accurate complaints that might justify action instead of made-up claims about nonexistent health risks.  Only a single quote from one city councilor who supported the bill suggested it would have a health benefit, and this was only the vaguest of hints of a claim.

I wish I could credit the news reporter or editorial writers with actually getting the health information correct, but they did not actually correct any misconceptions.  Indeed, the news article had some filler about nonsmoking New Yorkers having a slightly higher rate than other Americans of detectable  (which is not to say harmful) levels of nicotine metabolites in their bodies, and a claim that the exposure to secondhand smoke was the same, indoors or out, when sitting three feet from a smoker.

(Aside:  The latter claim is obviously false unless there is absolutely no wind and only one cigarette is smoked by anyone in the space.  As for the claim about nicotine metabolites, the same is probably also true for these people, living in one of the most crowded places in the country, of every chemical or biological substance that can spill over from people living their lives – driving, cooking, wearing clothes and perfume, incubating viruses, changing diapers, etc.  I wonder how many of those other activities will be banned.)

But what was incredibly refreshing about these points, in addition to the fact that they did not actually contain any health claims, was that they were clearly presented as government statements.  The same government that created this law gave the reporter “information” that supported their action, just as governments do when they start wars, fix bridges, or anything else.  The reporter passed on the claims without investigating whether they were misleading, as is sadly typical, but did so without endorsing them any more than other government claims.  This is an important improvement over most health reporting, where government claims are often stated as fact or are even bolstered by finding someone outside of government to state their support.  In other fields, a good reporter would find someone outside of government who could offer cogent disagreement.  Alas, that was not done in this case, and there was no active reminder to the reader that “facts” that are sourced to the government in support of its own controversial policies should be taken with some skepticism.  But at least it was progress for the reporter to not imply that the government claims were facts.

Reporters are supposed to be taught that all governments lie, and that it is their job to be skeptical and seek the truth in spite of this.  It is time that those on the health beat figure out that they are not doing their jobs if they act as stenographers of government statements any more than White House reporters are.  The bad news is that we do not actually have any new evidence of health reporters learning how to be reporters – the news story cited above, which was closer to reporting accurately about secondhand smoke than anything in the NYT I can remember, was written by Javier C. Hernandez, a city hall reporter.

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