Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The CDC: Your Online Source for Incredible Tobacco Information

The U.S. government is battling tobacco and tobacco users, based to a great extent on misinformation promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC bills itself as “Your Online Source for Credible Health Information,” but two recent reports clearly demonstrate that the agency is deliberately deceiving Americans about fundamental facts concerning tobacco use.

Last week, the CDC published an article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) about the dual use of smokeless tobacco and cigarettes among men and women in the U.S. (available here). The data was from the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), an on-going telephone health survey tracking U.S. health conditions and risk behaviors yearly since 1984.

The information in the CDC report was routine: Smokeless tobacco use was highest in Wyoming and West Virginia (9 percent), and lowest in California (1 percent). Smoking rates were highest in Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma (about 26 percent), and lowest in Utah (10 percent), California (13 percent) and Washington (15 percent).

Still, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden used the results to rejoin the attack, with a special focus on smokeless products: “Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in this country and unfortunately smokers are also using smokeless tobacco. If you smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. Use of smokeless tobacco may keep some people from quitting tobacco altogether. We need to intensify our anti-tobacco efforts to help people quit using all forms of tobacco.”

This week, with the help of the Wall Street Journal (here), the CDC turned its attention back to cigarettes, with the claim that smoking rates stopped declining several years ago. Here’s the lead:

“Many cash-strapped U.S. states are slashing budgets for tobacco-prevention programs, raising alarms among public-health groups as the nation's progress toward getting adult smokers to quit has stalled. The adult smoking rate was 20.6% in 2009, the same as a year earlier and largely unchanged since 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The basis for these numbers was the 2009 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)(available here), which reported that the prevalence of smoking has been “largely unchanged” for the past several years, at just above 20%. But what about the BRFSS (discussed above)? What does that survey say about smoking rates?

For 2004, BRFSS reported the prevalence of current smoking as 20.9%, about the same as the NHIS. But for 2009, according to BRFSS, smoking prevalence had dropped to 17.9%. That’s a whopping decline of 14% in just 5 years!

One year ago I discussed in this blog how different federal surveys report contrasting data on smoking in the U.S. (here). We now have a brilliant example of how the CDC creates a consistent anti-tobacco narrative by cherry-picking data from what are essentially conflicting datasets. The public, and government budgeting officials, would be better served by a CDC that focused on reporting and explaining the unvarnished facts, free of any social behavioral bias.

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