Deception through omission, or lying while staying accurate

Or, how to lie like a tobacco controller.

So, something I’ve noticed recently is an uptick in the number of ‘accurate’ but highly misleading claims being made by those who purport to be against tobacco harm. This normally takes the turn of stating an fact, but utterly removing the context.

Here are some examples.

E-cigarettes produce formaldehyde*

Smokeless tobacco is not safe.

Dihydrogen monoxide is a solvent that leads to the oxidisation of metals.

*they actually claim that they contain formaldehyde, which isn’t true; it’s a byproduct of the vapourisation process in extreme abuse scenarios – but that doesn’t stop them. The doses in normal use are, as far as anyone can ascertain, functionally harmless acutely, and unlikely to be majorly problematic in the long term, and compared to lit tobacco, it barely touches the sides in terms of risk…but I digress.

The more astute among you will have noticed that the last one is a joke – it’s water, of course. But the ones above, are not. But the fact that use this exact tactic to present water as a scary, dangerous, lethal substance should give you a clue about how this works. The important difference being, of course, that is a parody of exactly this tactic, the sort used by chemophobes like The Food Babe. Surely professional public health operatives woul….sorry, I couldn’t finish that sentence, of course they’re beyond parody.

Basically, the idea is that you can’t lie when disseminating public health info (well, it happens a lot, but it should be avoided if possible). What you don’t have to do, however, is tell the whole truth. You can be very selective.

Hence, as there is extremely limited evidence of harm from smokeless tobacco of any form (and, to be blunt, plenty of evidence of little harm, even objectively when not comparing to lit tobacco) it’s hard to push your prohibitionist message without coming across as a bit mealy mouthed and making a fuss over nothing.

So instead of actively lying, you simply pick the particular parts of the truth you like, and present them in a manner which makes them appear intimidating or risky, be that through your own subtext, or simply through failing to provide a comparator for them – and allowing the reader to assume from your position (IE if you’re in public health, then what you are stating must be a warning) that something is more dangerous than it actually is.

Syke have been trying this recently and, well, the response they’ve had from the THR grassroots has been…shall we say, interesting. I had a good pop at ’em myself. On multiple posts. Their responses were disappointingly lacking in bite, frankly.

Tonight, the ironically titled Truth Initiative stated that smokeless tobacco is not a safe alternative to lit tobacco.

Well of course it’s not a ‘safe’ alternative, as nothing is entirely safe.  That statement, in itself, is accurate and ‘true’.

Smokeless tobacco is, however, a massively, drastically safer alternative to lit tobacco, with small elevated risks of cancers over non-users, and hugely *reduced* risk for multiple  forms of cancer over lit tobacco. In fact, the only thing that chewing tobacco is linked to (that I’m aware of) is oral cancers, where the elevated risk above baseline is notable (or in research terms, significant – that is, it exists above a level you’d expect from random happenstance), but long term use is far, far from a guarantee of getting it; it increases your odds, in short.

However, it doesn’t increase your risks of lung cancer (or other respiratory diseases), nor does it increase the risks of heart disease, dangerously increase blood pressure, or basically any of the other things that lit tobacco increases the risks of.

And those are, as you’re likely aware a lot of things.

And thus, simply by omitting context, or by using specific language designed to deceive but remaining accurate in the very narrow sense of accuracy, you can lie through your fucking teeth, and still claim to have never said anything that is not a fact.

It’s not unique to tobacco of course – once you spot this technique, you see it in many other places. But it’s definitely a fun one to catch and to throw back in people’s faces.

Well, it is if you like to fuck with the po-faced neo-temperance puritan dickwaffles you typically find in the public health world.

They’d like you to get down on your knees and thank them for their hard work making your life dull and ‘safe’, and they tend to get a bit uppity when you explain that you can’t because you’re not their mother last night.

And if you can’t enjoy doing that, then you can’t enjoy life at all. Which is what they want, really.

A quiet, plain, life, free from risk, till you die at age 90 having never had extramarital sex, smoked a cigar or driven above the speed limit.

The riposte to that isn’t that you should go fill your viens with skag and have a threesome with some dodgy prozzies, of course – but accurate dissemination of relative risk of activities is utterly key to allow people to make their own informed decisions on lifestyle choices that they make. They can’t accurately determine if those choices are more or less risky (or whether, more specfically, the risk is worth the reward) if you don’t tell them the whole truth.

And that’s a fact.

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