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Stogie News: Smoke Clouds ASH’s Poll

17 Jul 2008

Earlier this month, Patrick A. wrote about a press release by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) advocating greater smoking restrictions and citing a “new survey” that found “57% of the people in Ireland support a ban on smoking in all homes and cars.”

My antennae always go up when I see references to polls or surveys with no accompanying information. Years of editing news stories made me quite skeptical about polling. Of course there are legitimate polls, but there are many, many more completely useless reports that attempt to gain credibility by artfully disguising their lack of any objectivity or scientific validity.

As an Irish Times columnist wrote recently, “The past decade has seen an explosion in snappy surveys, accompanied by amazing statistics and all-important lists. There are few things, it seems, that our culture enjoys more than a list. It is information in its simplest, most digestible, most satisfying form; that it is utterly worthless information hardly seems to matter.”

If you want to spend a few minutes improving your poll knowledge, check the National Council on Public Polls’ “20 Questions a Journalist Should Ask about Poll Results.”

Now let me confess right away that I failed utterly in my efforts to actually get a copy of what ASH referred to. I did, however, learn several things that I found interesting and increased my skepticism.

First, I read the ASH release, which uses the 57% figure to support a lead stating, “A clear majority wants smoking banned in all homes, even if children are not present, and even if the smoke is not drifting into an adjoining dwelling.” I emailed the Irish ASH branch, asking if they could direct me to the survey. The reply? “We have not released this data—do you have any further details?” I sent the website address for the ASH release and followed up asking again if they had any further info. I’ve gotten no further response from them.

Searching on the web, I also found a release from a large private Irish health insurer, Vhi Healthcare, that cited the survey and noted that it had been commissioned by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. This was interesting for several reasons. For starters, Pfizer has come under intense fire in the wake of possible links between its anti-smoking drugs and suicidal tendencies among some users, which the company disputes. As sales slumped, the company initiated a massive advertising campaign. Pfizer also maintains a huge operation in Ireland.

Vhi, though, wasn’t able to tell me much of anything. The company’s PR office told me, “Unfortunately, what we received from Pfizer is what was posted on our website and we do not have any further information from the survey to provide to you.” They suggested I check with Pfizer.

First, though, I e-mailed Professor John F. Bazhaf, ASH executive director, to see if he could direct me to a copy of the survey. He sent me the email address for the Vhi release. When I told him I’d seen that and was seeking the full data, he responded that “you have all of the information I have on this particular study. For more information, I suggest you contact the authors and/or sponsors.” He also suggested I call with any other questions.

Now, I was more than happy to call, but I wanted him to know why I was calling. Again, my journalism background doesn’t allow for deception. So, I e-mailed him detailing my cigar background and telling him that I really had only a couple of questions:

Was there a reason you did not cite Pfizer (which has a vast operation in Ireland) as the sponsor of the survey, given the alleged link between the company’s smoking cessation drug and suicidal tendencies by users, as well as Pfizer’s massive U.S. publicity campaign on behalf of its drug? Are you comfortable citing the results of a survey about which you know so little, such as what the questions were, how they were asked, who was questioned, the margin of error, etc.?

He replied that “my role is to try to put the study in context, and relate it to ASH’s so-far successful attempts to ban smoking in homes in certain circumstances,” not to “provide details about the study itself—a job for journalists who report on it to the general public.”

I will give the professor an A+ for being upfront about his intentions and methods. But I don’t think he’d get a passing grade on the quest for truth.

Pfizer was a tougher nut to crack. The website for the company’s Irish operation had no email addresses that I could find. I’ve called the company’s PR office at the New York headquarters several times and left voicemail messages with no response. My email has also not been answered.

The bottom line is I don’t really know much more about the survey than when I started. But the little I’ve learned—Pfizer’s involvement, unquestioned echoing of results, no access to the study—has increased my skepticism.

George E

photo credit: CNN

4 Responses to “Stogie News: Smoke Clouds ASH’s Poll”

  1. Jackson W Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 5:45 am #

    Nice work, George. Thanks for checking up on ASH's misinformation.

  2. Winona Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 9:47 am #

    I'm calling shinanigans on Banzhaf. What kind of "professor" (I'd be ashamed to be a GW alum) makes such comments in a widely publicized press release when he has no clue about the source of the data? Shame on you.

  3. Kevin D. Korenthal Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 11:10 am #

    As a citizen journalist, i have found much fodder reporting on the inaccuracies and outright misrepresentations that occur by the media about polls.

  4. cigarfan Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 11:47 am #

    Great work George. If you happen to run into Banzhaf again, I'd be interested to know what he thinks about the fact that smoking has actually increased in Ireland since the public areas ban was enacted. Ah, the magic of polls…