Pack Mentality

A media column about secondhand smoke stirs up a cloud of controversy.

Dave Kopel is accustomed to pissing people off. As the research director of the Independence Institute, an area think tank that generally operates on the conservative end of the political continuum, he's defended the rights of firearms manufacturers, knowing that folks with opposing views will accuse him of giving aid and comfort to death merchants. So he understands why quite a few readers choked on "Paper Blowing Scientific Smoke," a June 30 Rocky Mountain News media commentary in which he disputed conventional wisdom regarding a similarly divisive subject: secondhand cigarette smoke.

"The tobacco industry obviously spent decades denying that smoking increases your risk for lung cancer," says Kopel, who smokes only the occasional cigar. "Most people my age remember those denials and know they were plainly false. But just because an industry said something that was false for years doesn't mean every accusation about the product is true."

Although Kopel's column, which appears biweekly in the News, wasn't as direct as this comment, it still provoked more than two dozen responses; he says they were more or less evenly split between correspondents thanking him for his words and others utterly shocked that he could have written such things. Representing the latter group was Robin Hobart, a Denver resident on the board of Berkeley, California's Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR), who penned a letter attacking what she saw as Kopel's complicity in "the industry's coverup." This missive appeared on the July 14 News opinion page beneath a followup column in which Kopel claimed his initial piece was concerned with correcting errors, not resolving a policy debate.

Other anti-smoking advocates took a more subtle tack, talking anonymously to Westword about what they see as Kopel's conflict of interest when it comes to this topic. And indeed, Kopel and Institute president Jon Caldara confirm that the organization has received a minimum of $25,000 from tobacco-industry coffers. Asks one of these sources, "Who's watching the watchdog?"

This question is extremely valid, says Hobart, because of Kopel's area of specialization. "Since he's sort of a self-described media critic who is periodically taking various media outlets to task for their perceived or real failures, he has a responsibility to fully disclose -- probably more so than other reporters would need to. And that's especially true if he's covering an issue where he has financial ties to an industry with a vested interest in what he's writing about."

Kopel, meanwhile, believes that Hobart, and others on her side, would rather kill the messenger than deal with the message. "As her letter illustrates, there are some people in the anti-tobacco movement who resort to personal attacks whenever anybody disagrees with them."

In the column that started this conflagration, Kopel set out to critique "Smoking Debate Lights Up Passions in Fort Collins," a June 16 Denver Post article penned by Coleman Cornelius of the paper's Northern Colorado bureau. Cornelius's article dealt with a proposed ordinance before the Fort Collins City Council that would outlaw smoking "in all enclosed spaces used by the public." Kopel praised Cornelius for collecting comments from ordinance supporters and adversaries alike, but took umbrage at one sentence in particular: "The Environmental Protection Agency classifies secondhand smoke as a cancer-causing substance with no safe level of exposure, causing 60,000 deaths each year in the United States." He maintained that "the EPA's classification of secondhand smoke as a carcinogen was declared null in 1998 by a federal District Court," argued that the "no safe level of exposure" declaration was misleading because "it's almost impossible to establish a safe level of exposure for anything," including sunshine, and asserted that the 60,000-annual-deaths figure (arrived at by a California state agency, not the EPA) was highly dubious.

As Kopel acknowledged in print, some of the data he used came courtesy of Jacob Sullum, a columnist for Reason magazine and the author of the book For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health. ANR boardmember Hobart looks upon this reference as a smoking gun. In her letter, she portrayed Sullum and Gigi Gori, co-writer of Passive Smoking: The EPA's Betrayal of Science and Policy, another book cited by Kopel, as "part of a stable of scientists and reporters paid by the tobacco industry to downplay the risks of secondhand smoke."

This depiction doesn't please Sullum, who's based in the Washington, D.C., area. And while he didn't contact the News directly to complain about its decision to publish Hobart's letter without contacting him first, he still thinks he should have received a call. "This is a pretty clear allegation she's making -- that I basically work for hire for the tobacco industry," he says. "It's completely untrue, and if the newspaper had contacted me, I would have told them that. But instead, they just ran it."

On one occasion, Sullum acknowledges, he was paid directly by a tobacco firm: In 1994, he received a fee from the R.J. Reynolds company to republish an item he'd written that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. (When asked the amount of this payment, he says, "Let's put it this way: It was not nearly enough to make it worth the grief I've gotten since then, and if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't do it.") He also notes that the Reason Foundation, which funds Reason magazine, accepts some money from tobacco sources, characterizing it as "far less than one percent of the budget." But he believes these incidents, which he mentioned in his book, fall far short of establishing a direct link between him and big tobacco. He says he began investigating the statistics used by the anti-smoking movement mainly because he objects to "paternalistic" government actions -- a libertarian philosophy that he applies to virtually all of his work. His next book, for instance, will tackle U.S. drug policy, which he perceives as intruding upon individual civil liberties.

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