The Last Judgment

Blurring the Line Between Righteousness and Health

Make no mistake about it, public health is a righteous cause. Overwhelmingly, people choose careers in public health because they believe in the mission and they want to make a difference in the world. But righteous causes can bring a loss of objectivity. It happens because strong, human feelings come into play. When we hear a public health nutrition expert talk of “stomping out” inconvenient research findings, the line between righteousness and public health is blurring. All too easily, then, public health can suffer rather than benefit.

We see many examples of the line blurring – especially in obesity and nutrition research. People stake out a position they believe in and they defend it with passion. Perspective flies out the window.

A Case Study in Nicotine, Tobacco, and Vaping

Such a case is unfolding in the field of nicotine and tobacco research right now. Smoking is at an all-time low – both for adults and youth. Many people who still smoke – folks who are highly addicted – are turning to vaping as an alternative. The risks of vaping are dramatically less than smoking. But in their zeal to defeat tobacco once and for all, some vocal advocates have convinced themselves that vaping is a terrible threat to public health. And thus, they have led nearly half of the American public to falsely believe vaping is just as dangerous as smoking. In fact, a portion of the public even believes it may be more dangerous.

This week a group of nicotine and tobacco researchers – 15 past presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco – are suggesting that this righteous crusade might be out of balance. These are people who have devoted their careers to research and solutions for health problem of tobacco addiction. They write in the American Journal of Public Health:

“We share the very legitimate concerns about youth vaping with the entire field of public health. Our goal is to put those concerns in perspective.

“For smokers with serious psychological distress, two thirds of their 15-year loss of life expectancy compared with nonsmokers without serious psychological distress may be attributable to their smoking. Vaping might assist more of these smokers to quit.

“To the more privileged members of society, today’s smokers may be nearly invisible. Indeed, many affluent, educated U.S. persons may believe the problem of smoking has been largely ‘solved.’ They do not smoke. Their friends and colleagues do not smoke. There is no smoking in their workplaces, nor in the restaurants and bars they frequent. Yet 1 of every 7 U.S. adults remains a smoker today.

“Smoking will claim the lives of 480,000 of our fellow citizens this year alone.”

Righteousness That Leaves Us Blind

In a parable of true blindness, a blind man came to a prophet and the prophet’s disciples asked “who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” The prophet replied:

“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here.”

The ironic truth of this parable is that the illusion of righteousness can make people blind to a larger truth – in this case, the need for healing.

It is sad but true that we often see people with good intentions looking to assign blame for public health problems. Having a clear enemy can help to rally people behind a righteous cause. But the real enemy is poor health. If we become too fixated on an enemy, real or imagined, our efforts can easily wander away from the mission to promote health.

So a passion for objectivity is necessary to complement the passion that we bring to the subject of public health.

Click here for the review and analysis in AJPH, here and here for further reporting on it.

The Last Judgment, painting by Wassily Kandinsky / WikiArt

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August 22, 2021

One Response to “Blurring the Line Between Righteousness and Health”

  1. August 22, 2021 at 10:50 am, David Brown said:

    A passion for objectivity means a passion for truth. A fact is always true. However, a myth may or may not be true. JFK recognized the danger of embracing myth for he said, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

    One of the most dangerous myths is this matter of scientific consensus; the idea that truth can be determined by a vote.