Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tobacco companies and open goals

Eid Mubarak.

That is the traditional greeting given at the end of Ramadan, despite having lived in an area with a substantial Turkish population for more years than I have lived anywhere else I only learned that this week. Saying it elicits the same smiley response as Merry Christmas in the middle weeks of December. Now that Ramadan is over I no longer have to abide by the dietary strictures I imposed upon myself a month ago, so tofu and cauliflower need be avoided only on the ground of their venal characteristics and not for any other reason.

Talking of venal characteristics, on Thursday I made the mistake of turning on the radio on my way to golf and was assaulted by an absurd anti-smoking zealot spouting forth on the Victoria Darbyshire show on BBC Radio 5. His name was Professor Gerard Hastings. The good Mr Puddlecote knows more about him than I do and has posted (here) on the very subject that lies behind today's missive.

I can summarise the background quickly. Professor Hastings leads a department at the University of Sterling (an establishment with a fine reputation he is doing his best to destroy). That department is funded by taxpayers and has the remit to identify every possible fact or inference that can possibly be used to argue against the consumption of tobacco products. One of his latest wheezes was a survey of teenagers with the view to ascertaining their opinions of smoking tobacco and the factors that influenced them or might influence them into taking up that particular hobby. The survey, as I understand it, comprised asking a series of questions and recording the answers.

If that is all that had been done, one might ask why it was done, but of course it is not all that was done. Once the answers were received they were "interpreted" by Professor Hastings and his merry men and conclusions were drawn. Conclusions which he is proud to contribute to public debate on the issue of what, if anything, government should add to its current panoply of anti-smoking legislation and regulation. I put it in those terms very deliberately because there is no possibility at all of Professor Hastings reaching any conclusion suggesting that anti-smoking laws or regulations should be relaxed in any way. He is paid specifically to find fault, something he is very happy to do and is perfectly entitled to do provided he does so honestly and is prepared to justify his position. His interview on the radio suggested that one result of his so-called research supported the argument for plain packaging for cigarettes - I know not what other contentions it contained but this is the one he pressed to Miss Darbyshire.

A tobacco company, which uses the trading name Philip Morris, asked for details of the facts behind the conclusions/inferences drawn by Professor Hastings and his team. The request was, of course, made to the University not to the Professor himself so I cannot ascribe the patently unlawful refusal to give any information to him, nonetheless he was keen to associate himself with it on national radio.

On this occasion the BBC also allowed time for Philip Morris to give its side of the story, and it is this that is the substance of my ramblings. A woman, whose name I cannot recall, answered the more absurd points put forward by the Professor. For example, he said the survey was conducted on the basis that the answers would be strictly confidential and that this means the answers could not be disclosed. Being a man with a fine title but no common sense, he failed to realise just how stupid a point he was making. If the answers could not be disclosed he could not publish any conclusions drawn from them because, by doing so, he was disclosing the answers. That might not be quite as stupid as his argument that his University should not have to disclose the findings of fact on which his "research" was based because it is just a university yet Philip Morris employs tens of thousands of people around the globe. Quite what that has to do with the Freedom of Information Act is beyond me. Were I a professor maybe I would understand, as things are it sounds like illogical nonsense.

Now, back to the Philip Morris woman. When asked to justify her company's request for the data behind Professor Hastings' tendentious conclusions she warbled on about a need to know "the basis of the research". This was Radio 5 in the morning. The audience could not reasonably be expected to know ins-and-outs of the way anti-tobacco "research" operates or, indeed, of how proper scientific research operates, still less can they be expected to know the heavily-nuanced phrase "the basis of the research". The good Professor provided her with the killer point but she did not grasp it and undermine his credibility as she should.

Professor Hastings wants all employees of Philip Morris to lose their jobs, he wants the company closed, he wants its business to cease to exist. He said as much when Miss Darbyshire prompted him to do so.

The Philip Morris lady's best point was to assert that her company's business is lawful, employs tens of thousands of people (some thing the Professor seems to consider an evil), contributes vast quantities of tax to the Treasury and is entitled to protect its business against unfounded attacks. So, if it is attacked, it is entitled to ask whether the attack is well-founded or not. The purpose of the request for disclosure of the data behind Professor Hastings' conclusions can only be to see whether it supports the conclusions he asserts. If it does, it does; if it doesn't it doesn't. No one can know unless they are able to see the data and analyse it for themselves. She didn't get within spitting distance of making this obvious and decisive point. It is a point that knocks all of Professor Hastings' smug self-justification into a cocked-hat.

Professor Hastings "research" led to the assertion of conclusions designed to damage Philip Morris's lawful business and put all its employees out of work. Given that this might be the result of his conclusions being adopted in legislation, Philip Morris is entitled to ask whether his conclusions are sound. That can only be known by seeing the factual evidence from which he drew inferences. He can assert until the trump of doom that his conclusions are well-founded but no sensible person should be expected to accept that merely on the basis of his assertion. Unless the raw material from which he draws inferences is disclosed, he is asking for Philip Morris's business to be damaged purely because of his subjective interpretation of material no one else can examine.

Were we lucky enough to have independent-minded people of substance in Parliament, his conclusions could be challenged there. Instead we have far too many MPs who are constantly asking whether what they do will damage their hopes of re-election or advancement within their party. Going against current accepted wisdom can damage both, so they chicken out regardless of their personal views.

I do not know whether the Freedom of Information Act allows Philip Morris access to the anonymised answers given to Professor Hastings and his team (and Mr Puddlecote is wrong in suggesting that the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled that it has such a right, he ruled that the University must either disclose the information or give a good reason under the Act why it should not do so). Whether the Act does or does not allow access to the information deflects attention from the real issue. The real issue is whether a lawful business should be damaged because someone - in this case Professor Hastings - asserts that information he refuses to disclose supports the doing of harm to that business.

In the real world occupied by fair-minded people, substantiated reasons are required before government harms a lawful business. Fairness requires businesses to be able to ask why government proposes to do them harm. To rely on nothing more than the word of a fanatical academic whose salary and department are dependent on him giving the answers government wants to hear is to replace fairness with random bigotry.

It really is time the tobacco companies fought back and pointed out that a lot of people, something over one-fifth of the adult population of this country, choose to consume tobacco products and pay blistering amounts of tax for the privilege. Narrow-minded, bullying bigots might try to stop them by producing skewed analyses of data that is statistically insignificant in any event. Professor Hastings could fall into this category, he certainly doesn't approach the subject with an open mind as he admitted freely to the dozens of people listening to his irrational rantings on Thursday morning.

People like him are an open goal for any tobacco company with guts. Maybe the prevailing narrative is that smoking is an unmitigated evil with nothing in its favour, it certainly seems to be so from my perspective here at FatBigot Towers. When a prevailing narrative is based on a fundamental flaw, it takes someone with guts to stand up and say "hold on a minute, is that right?". It is an Emperor's new clothes scenario. Tobacco companies can afford guts and they can afford to face-down those who seek to attack their lawful business by publishing conclusions that are unsound. I know not whether Professor Hastings' conclusions are unsound, what I do know is that he cannot be trusted to be objective.

We cannot expect poor quality MPs to investigate whether his conclusions are correct, and nor should we. He is attacking lawful businesses who should fight their own corner. The first step in doing so is to put forward spokespeople on national broadcasts who avoid quasi-scientific jargon and get to the point.

This is an issue on which there is a chance of common sense replacing bigoted dogma. If the tobacco companies cannot grasp the lifeline provided by the truth we might well be destined to a future of having to accept falsehoods because they are "officially" decreed to be the truth.


john miller said...


There appear to be two distinct types of science.

Good Science comprises collection of subjective data, subjective interpretation of said data and publication of subjectiive conclusions arising therefrom. The other requisites of Good Science are that it be cloaked in secrecy and publicly funded. The outcome of Good Science is unfailingly that we are told not to do something.

Bad Science is doing tricky stuff that makes money or improves the human condition. Bad Science is frowned upon by many academics because it requires a brain.

Woman on a Raft said...

In PR terms it is a good thing that the point has been made "We asked for the data, they wouldn't tell us".

For the big picture that is all that counts. In fact, it's a bonus that the prof has chucked his teddy out of his cot as it has made the story big and simple: the prof is hiding something.

In PR terms we don't even need to know what it is - we only need to know that it is a Secret, from which it follows that it must be adverse to his case or he wouldn't be hiding it.

Absolutely the last thing one needs in a PR argument is somebody whacking a load of data on the desk and saying "This is my argument" because a) you might have to read it and b) you might have to explain it, gah. Even if you did, you still can't win an argument with those kinds of explanations, even if you could show his research was bunk. He'd win by showing a fat file stuffed to bursting rather than any coherent argument. What's really needed is to comb the file until you find the incriminating email which describes all smokers as scum and everybody else as witless fools.