July 24, 2007
By Ken Boehm - Issac Asimov wrote,
"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster
than society gathers wisdom." What passes for wisdom these days in our nation's
capital, so far as science itself is concerned, is an embarrassment of the
highest order. Nearly every day the White House, Congress and federal agencies
trample scientific facts, accuracy and ethics in their issuance of misguided
pronouncements, laws and regulations.
Days ago, four former surgeons
general went before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, at
the behest of Chairman Henry Waxman, to chronicle the politicizing of science by
successive administrations — of both parties. "Anything that doesn't fit into
the political appointees' ideological, theological, or political agenda is
ignored, marginalized, or simply buried," the most recently retired surgeon
general, Dr. Richard Carmon, told the committee. "The problem with this approach
is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than
ignoring science or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by
changing political winds."
Horrified, Sen. Ted Kennedy immediately
weighed in: "Dr. Carmona's strong testimony... is yet another disturbing account
of how the Bush administration has put ideology ahead of the health needs of the
American people... We owe it to the American people to be sure that [the next
surgeon general] will base his policies on sound science and best medical
practices, and not the politics and ideology that have put our health care at
If only Messrs. Waxman and Kennedy adhered to the standards they
so strongly demand of others.
The National Legal and Policy Center has
waged a constant battle for accuracy and ethics in government and public life,
often relying on the federal Data Quality Act to get agencies to correct
Since 2004, for example, NLPC has filed three objections
to the Department of Health and Human Services' repeated claim in consumer
education materials that smokeless tobacco is not safer than cigarettes
(National Institute on Aging in March 2004; and National Clearinghouse for
Alcohol and Drug Information in December 2005, and again in June 2006). In each
case, the agency acknowledged its gross error and deleted the offending language
or terminated the offending pamphlets entirely.
Now we have those twin
pillars of science-based-policy-making, Messrs. Kennedy and Waxman, pressing for
adoption of legislation to save the very lives, if not souls, of the nation's 45
million heathen smokers... and not only repeating the same tired lie about
smokeless vs. cigarettes, but putting a muzzle on the FDA (of all agencies) and
on industry as well. Their proposed legislation, S. 625 and H.R. 1108, would
assign primary regulatory responsibility for the massive tobacco industry to the
already dangerously overburdened FDA. Just look at the FDA's recent failure to
avoid, or deal in a timely fashion with salmonella, e.Coli and Chinese chemical
poisoning of our food supply, or the hundreds of unnecessary heart attacks
caused by an FDA-approved diabetes drug.
The Kennedy-Waxman legislation
would require the FDA to treat all tobacco products the same, meaning the agency
would have to turn a blind eye to the mass of peer-reviewed scientific
literature showing that smokeless tobacco use is 98 percent safer than smoking.
Britain's Royal College of Physicians has gone on record stating that smokeless
products are "10 to 10,000 times less hazardous than smoking." A senior
executive of the American Cancer Society has been quoted in the Wall Street
Journal saying "There's no question that switching" to smokeless tobacco is "far
less lethal than smoking." But S. 625/H.R. 1108, which has the endorsement of
the world's No. 1 cigarette marketer, would make it all but impossible for
marketers of smokeless products to inform smokers of the potentially life-saving
harm-reduction merits of switching to smokeless products. The Senate will
mark-up S. 625 on Wednesday.
If our honorable representatives in
Congress truly care about improving smokers' health and reducing the
extraordinary cost of dealing with smoking-related health problems, they should
amend S. 625 to permit the FDA to base its tobacco regulations on
science-supported proof of relative risks and permit smokeless tobacco marketers
to present truthful claims to the smoking public. Science has given us the
knowledge to save lives; Congress should display the wisdom to let us use it.
Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center.