DHS 'smoking gun'?

Copyright 1998 Orange County Register
October 14, 1998

Charges leveled last week against the California Department of Health Services by a smokers' rights group deserve a thorough investigation by Gov. Pete Wilson or the Legislature. The National Smokers Alliance claims that DHS, which commissioned two surveys on the results of the state's smoking ban, only publicized the study that coincided with its anti-smoking views.

These allegations are significant because of the timing of the poll findings. Amid much fanfare, the health department announced the respected Field Research Corp.'s survey of bar patrons while the Legislature was considering overturning the ban on smoking in bars, which went into effect on Jan. 1.

In a June 24 press release, the department said the poll showed that two-thirds of bar patrons say smoke-free bars are "somewhat" or "very" important. "Public health policy must be based on unbiased scientific evidence — not dictated by well-funded tobacco industry front groups," State Health Director Kim Belshe said in the release.

We agree with Ms. Belshe that public health issues must be based on all the facts, not just the portions that conform to the views of interest groups. That's what raises our hackles about the NSA charges. If true, they mean the department distorted facts to fit a particular viewpoint.

What the department didn't reveal were the results of a second set of survey questions by the same research group, which showed overwhelming opposition to the ban by bar owners and by the very employees the law aims to protect.

In response to the charges, DHS spokesman Ken August reminded us that NSA is a "tobacco industry front group," then discounted the results of the second survey questions. He said queries to bar owners, managers and employees were designed merely to hear their concerns. He said the poll oversampled "stand alone" bars (the survey data, however, was "weighted" to compensate for that fact). And he said there weren't enough controls to make the results reliable.

"A survey will not change the fact that secondhand smoke is harmful to people who breathe it and it will not change the fact that every other type of worker in California is entitled to a safe, smoke-free workplace," Mr. August said.

The department, it seems, is trying to have it both ways. It portrays the first set of poll data that conforms to its views as accurate and important, and the second set that conflicts with its views as faulty and insignificant.

Mike Hambrick, vice president of the NSA, said his group found out about the second part of the survey by accident. NSA had requested backup information about the bar-patron poll under the Public Records Act. After delaying the request until the legislative session was over, Mr. Hambrick said the health department sent NSA information from the second survey rather than the first.

The second poll results found that, by a 61.8 percent to 33.5 percent margin, bar owners, managers and employees opposed the smoking ban. Disapproval rates topped 90 percent in "stand alone" bars. Nearly 70 percent of employees — almost 60 percent of whom are smokers — were opposed to the law.

Tobacco front group or not, NSA is correct to say that such figures could have influenced Legislative debate.

Ultimately, the law should stand or fall based on principles, not poll data. We continue to acknowledge the health hazards of smoking, but oppose the smoking ban because it is an affront to property rights and individual liberties for government to dictate smoking policies in private facilities.

This incident shows the Department of Health Services is as much an interested party as the tobacco lobby. DHS may have every right to support the smoking ban, but it shouldn't squelch relevant public information to do so.

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