The truth is somewhere between the hype
by David Williams
As a journalist, I tend to cast a critical eye on things that people tell me and just expect me to believe.
And these days, with the rapidly-advancing trend of forwarding personal agendas through public forums, being skeptical is just about a requirement if one is to sort through the many and varied claims people are making on a daily basis.
John Stossel, the television reporter for ABC News and acclaimed author, apparently thinks the same way.
I respect Stossel as a reporter who still knows how to present a story from an unattached and even-handed standpoint. Unlike many news sources who take a stance on one side and challenge the other to dispute it, Stossel has always been a straight-shooter who asks questions that are not loaded and allows answers that let the subjects of the story tell the tale.
So when I see an article by John Stossel, I stop and look at it. And a reprint of one of Stossel’s articles from the ABC News 20/20 website crossed my computer screen recently, regarding secondhand smoke.
Stossel’s take was that the anti-smoking forces out there - who are clearly making strides in their quest to wipe smoking off the face of the earth - tend to exaggerate the dangers of second-hand smoke to raise alarm and concern, and help to move their agenda forward.
He recounted a discussion he had with an anti-smoking activist, who drew a comparison on secondhand smoke this way: “… if I were to walk up to you and have an aerosol can filled with 4,000 chemicals and say, 'Excuse me, do you mind if I spray this in your face,' you'd think I was out of my mind, but when somebody smokes a cigarette, that's what they're doing,"
The activist further said that 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke was a sure-fire way to put you on the road to heart disease.
Stossel’s position was that if public policy against exposure to secondhand smoke is being made in the interests of public health, then the true risk of exposure to secondhand smoke needed to be known.
And at least one doctor - Dr. Michael Siegel - said that while casual public exposure in limited instances is not good, it is certainly is not as catastrophic as the activist claimed.
"If someone is just exposed for 30 minutes, it's completely reversible, and it's not gonna cause hardening of the arteries," Siegel said.
No matter where you stand on the issue, when you use facts to back your argument, augmenting them for dramatic effect is one sure way to make yourself irrelevant. The smokers’ rights folk have probably been as bad on this issue as the anti-smokers, and Big Tobacco has been accused of lying as a matter of policy in the past. But what you say comes back to your own credibility – and every journalist knows that you do not get that back overnight.
Stossel makes a good point. He is in favor of smoke-free zones, and even he sees that exaggeration in the name of public good is not a smart thing to do.
If we are going to have an argument on tobacco and public policy, let’s at least keep the themes within the grasp of reality – on both sides.