Article published Jul 24, 2007
Weird science

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 risk."

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 misinformation.

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.