Anti-Smoking Expert All Wet (Feb. 25, 1998)

What do you do when you have to say, “I’m sorry”? If you’re the professor who holds the anti-smoking chairmanship at the University of California, San Francisco, you say it in small print, duck under your academic propeller beanie, and hope no one notices.

Professor Propeller Beanie here would be UCSF professor of medicine Stanton A. Glantz. Professor Glantz believes, as many people do, of course, that smoking is bad for your health. But the good professor has carried the belief into political advocacy and academic activism.

Glantz has become the pope of the Church of No Smoking — no bad jokes, please, about white smoke from the Vatican chimney signaling his elevation. He is the indefatigable author or co-author of numerous studies paid for with grants using taxpayers’ money that prove, or purport to prove, that not only is tobacco-free society the Platonic ideal but also that the state bans on smoking in restaurants and, most recently, in bars has no economic effect on those establishments.

This conclusion is in conflict with common sense and the tucks being taken in the pocketbooks of bar owners since the statewide ban on smoking in bars and casinos went into effect January 1. Ask any bar owner in North Beach.

But Professor Glantz is skilled at producing impressive-looking academic tables of statistics to prove that common sense, in this case, makes little sense.

His recent study, “The Effect of Ordinances Requiring Smoke-Free Restaurants and Bars on Revenues: Follow-up,” published in the American Journal of Public Health in fall 1997, states in absolute terms that county and city ordinances banning smoking in bars have not affected businesses.

As the titular head of the no-smoking true believers, Glantz has naturally been subject to surveillance by the pro-smoking forces, which caught the hardworking professor in a whoopee of a mistake.

The Glantz thesis that smoke-free regulation for bars has no effect on their revenues was based on bar revenue statistics from Santa Clara and Shasta counties.

The pickle-pusses at the pro-smoking National Smokers Alliance went through the Glantz study as slowly as a fly goes through amber and discovered, hallelujah, that the professor and his researchers made two big boo-boos. The ban on smoking in bars in Santa Clara County applied only to the relatively small number of bars in unincorporated areas of he county, while the study purported to show positive economic figures for bars in the entire county, most of which, at that time, were under no constriction to disallow smoking.

In rural Shasta County, which has a New Hampshire-like “live free or die” attitude toward government regulations and appears to have one redneck bar for every 200,000 redwood trees, most bars were simply ignoring or unaware of the no-smoking regulation, while the largest bar-income producer in the country was an American Indian casino, which is exempted from regulation.

Yet the sales-tax data from the Indian casino and the bars that weren’t complying with the ban in Shasta County and the refusenik bars in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County were combined with the sales-tax data of bars not subject to no-smoke rules to prove that smoking bans had no economic effect on bars. You don’t have to take a college course in statistics to know that this conclusion was skating on thin academic ice.

The National Smokers Alliance, which is largely funded by the tobacco companies, jumped up and down like Rumpelstiltskin and after an extended exchange of letters finally received a letter on January 30 from University of California provost and senior vice president for academic affairs C. Judson King, acknowledging:

“You were correct that the article inaccurately identified data as representing only the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County when they actually represented the entire county. The same was true of the data from Shasta County. Following standard procedure, Professor Glantz has submitted a statement to the American Journal of Public Health acknowledging and correcting these errors…

“Professor Glantz has publicly acknowledged and corrected an error in his research. Thank you for bring this matter to our attention.”

The pope of no smoking, in admitting his fallibility, did not acknowledge error. He submitted corrected small-type tables of statistics to the academic journal that had carried the erroneous study while stating in the same small type that his conclusion that no-smoking rules didn’t effect bar revenues “is unchanged.”

Only in the sports pages is the truth told, a newspaper wag once observed, because there are too many witnesses to the final score.

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