Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Propaganda 2012

Most people assume that propaganda is purely a wartime device - something that was inflicted on generations past. But it continues to this day, and nowhere more obviously than in the field of 'public health'.

It works like this:
  1. An anti-tobacco fanatic publishes an absurd report, with claims that aren't supported even by their cherry-picked and carefully-massaged data
  2. The findings are promoted by the BBC News website under the headlines 'Smoke ban: Premature births down' and 'Fewer premature births after smoking ban in Scotland'
  3. BBC Breakfast reports "from a maternity ward in Scotland, where the smoking ban has had an effect on the size and delivery dates of babies"
  4. Ordinary decent people take the BBC report at face value
  5. Any articles questioning the prohibitionist claims reach a much smaller audience. When forwarded to ordinary decent people, the debunking articles often confuse rather than convince. Conflicting claims! Who to trust? Best to err on the side of caution.
  6. The public has been softened up for the next draconian measure:

According to the British Heart Foundation, there are more than nine million smokers in the UK, and smoking remains the UK's biggest cause of avoidable early death.

It says the focus should now shift to the effect of smoking in the home and confined spaces, such as cars, especially where children are present.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We are continuing to build upon the achievements made to protect future generations from the devastating effects of smoking such as bans on cigarette vending machines and the displays in shops.

"We are committed to ensuring a new comprehensive robust tobacco control strategy for Scotland is developed this year. This strategy will focus on prevention and cessation and include ambitious targets for reducing smoking across Scotland."

Do read the whole BBC News article, but especially read Christopher Snowdon's excellent blog post on the subject.

On the "drop in the number of babies born prematurely or with low birthweight", the BBC article notes, in passing, that

The investigators believe both are linked to the smoking ban, even though these rates started to go down some months before the ban was introduced and smoking incidence started to creep up again shortly after the ban.

while their work suggests a link, it is not proof that one thing necessarily causes another. As with all retrospective studies like this, it is impossible to rule out entirely all other factors that might have influenced the finding.

This is balance, BBC style. The intended message has already been conveyed forcefully in the headline and first eight paragraphs, and it is hammered home again in the concluding paragraphs (quoted above). Even their qualifications stress that "the investigators believe both are linked to the smoking ban" and that "their work suggests a link".

Here, from Christopher Snowdon's article, are the relevant graphs:

And here's the data from the report itself:

Are the BBC headlines justified?

Smoke ban: Premature births down

Fewer premature births after smoking ban in Scotland

Make up your own mind.

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