Monday, December 4 2000
Thank you Jon for accepting our rendez-vous. May I ask you to introduce yourself?
I'm a software engineer in California. I became involved in tobacco control in 1992 as a member of a local smokefree coalition. We were trying to get a smokefree ordinance in our community. We did surveys, and there was strong support from both business owners and the public. We also had a clear health case for it.
Our ordinance passed unanimously on the first reading, yet the city ultimately decided basically to do nothing. One reason: the city was afraid the ordinance would be pre-empted by Prop. 188. This threatened to undo everything we had worked for. So I signed up to help fight it.
Fighting Prop. 188 was an eye-opening experience. It was written by Philip Morris to get rid of California's smokefree workplaces and public places, while looking like the exact opposite. It would have rolled back hundreds of local smokefree ordinances across California, and pre-empted any future ones. It would also have virtually ruled out any strong smokefree state law. Philip Morris spent millions getting it on the ballot, and over $20 million promoting it as "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions". Their massive TV and direct mail campaign featured teachers, Moms, restaurant owners, all saying Prop. 188 was strong, reasonable smoking restrictions. Couldn't have been more deceptive. The good news is, we were able to expose this, the public saw through Prop. 188, and it lost by almost 3 to 1.
From all this, I became interested in learning more about tobacco and the tobacco industry. I was lucky: at about the same time, the Internet had emerged as a powerful resource for exactly this. The Brown and Williamson papers on UCSF's website. The Tobacco BBS. The Advocacy Institute's daily updates via email. Smokescreen.org. Fred Grannis's website on lung cancer. Jack Cannon's tobacco documents site. Simon Chapman's tobacco control Super Site. Stan Glantz's online papers on tobacco industry political activity in California. The tp-talk mailing list. The websites of ASH, ALA, ANR, AHA, Washington DOC. Oncolink. And so on.
These Internet resources were telling the truth about this industry, exposing its secrets, revealing how it makes its money, how it crafts its product to keep its customers hooked, how it influences governments to weaken and kill laws and policies that would reduce smoking. These resources were documenting, often in the industry's own words, its decades of lying, deception, and coverup; its relentless promotion, PR, and manipulation; its intimidation of journalists and scientists; its marketing to youth; its engineering of product for addiction. And they were explaining the true scale of the resulting disease and death, the full picture of what the product does to the customers and to bystanders -- not the soft-pedaled "health risks associated with" or "risk factor" of industry PR, but the straight facts: this product kills one out of every five Americans today, has killed over 10 million Americans since 1964, and drains the U.S. economy of over $100 billion a year.
Until this time, I had largely accepted the industry's cozy explanation of its business: some people choose to smoke, some don't, it's an adult choice. I knew how hard it was to quit, but I never made the connection that addiction is not about choice, it's about loss of choice. And I didn't realize that the industry as we know it wouldn't exist without massive marketing and promotion, engineering addictive product, and selling it to kids. Those Internet resources were documenting all that, and often in the industry's own words. In public, this industry talks about "adult choice"; in private, it talks about how to get people to smoke, how to get more people to smoke, how to get kids to smoke, how to get women to smoke, how to get minorities to smoke, how to promote tobacco and smoking across the nation and around the globe, how to derail tobacco prevention programs, and how to engineer product to be addictive.
Those memos from Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, the stuff that CBS wouldn't let you see, suddenly you could read them on the Internet. And they were exposing the industry's "choice" argument big time: you could see this is an industry that makes its money by doing everything it can to take away choice. Those Internet resources were also exposing industry dynamics: this is an industry that has to get kids addicted; it wouldn't survive if it couldn't keep on signing up "customers for life".
Other powerful resources on the Internet were sites run by advocates who had been fighting the industry for 30 years. They knew how the industry operates. They were documenting and sharing wisdom gained from hard experience: industry strategy and tactics; how the industry uses PR, front groups, and smokescreens of various kinds; how the industry does favors for politicians and what it gets in return; how it weakens tobacco policy; how it makes alliances with other organizations and fellow travelers; how it gets resources diverted from prevention programs; how and why it creates and pushes its own, ineffective, prevention programs; how it gets advocates and politicians to accept complex deals filled with loopholes that it understands and they don't, until it's too late; how it gets tobacco regulation stalled, watered down, or turned into weak pre-emptive law; how the industry gives cover to politicians who help it; how the industry lies -- not just whether it lies, but *how* it lies, in what ways, to what purpose, through what front groups; how it intimidates scientists, journalists, and the media; how it buys silence from women's groups, minority organizations, firefighters, even medical groups; and so on. Where the industry's true interests are, and what it will do to defend them. And by contrast, where the industry knows something will have little effect, and how it will make a big show of conceding those items -- and how inexperienced advocates fall into the trap of thinking they won big "concessions" when in fact they just bargained away real progress and got little in return.
In 1994 I started my own collection of links to the best websites on tobacco, the tobacco industry, tobacco control. I began to organize them into sections on health effects, industry activity, marketing, engineering, nicotine and addiction, secondhand smoke, advocacy, tobacco policy, and so on. As it happened, at that time tobacco issues were exploding. My list of links started getting fairly long.
Q1. I am in the process of starting a survey of the existing tobacco control websites. Therefore I thought it would be appropriate to ask someone who is looking up sites to try to learn more about the ways to search and select. Can you also explain to us what ODP is, how it works and how YOU work? What about dmoz?
What does dmoz stand for? This one's truly an accident of
history. Netscape's mascot was a dragon called Mozilla, a combination
of Mosaic and Godzilla.
When Netscape became involved with the Open Directory, they called it Mozilla Directory: dmoz for short. Today, the better name is the Open Directory,
or Open Directory Project, or ODP. But the URL is still dmoz: http://www.dmoz.org/
ODP is the largest, most comprehensive directory of the Internet. It is run by an army of volunteer editors. Anyone can become an editor: you apply to edit a category, and if you're accepted, you start editing. A good description of ODP is at: http://www.dmoz.org/about.html
A strength of ODP is it uses the existing knowledge base of the Internet. There are people out there who have knowledge of and interest in a subject area. They know what the good websites are in that area. Often they already have their own collections of links to the best websites. ODP taps into this; they can become editors for the corresponding ODP category. That's how I became editor of the ODP category on tobacco. ( http://www.dmoz.org/Health/Addictions/Substance_Abuse/Tobacco))
Now, a directory is very different from a search engine. Search engines, like AltaVista or AllTheWeb, mechanically find all accessible sites, mostly by following links from site to site; they generate an index of sites found; then they let users search for sites by searching that index. The downside is lots of "false positive" search results, and little or no structure to the results. A directory is edited by humans; humans add, select, and delete sites, group them into categories, and write site descriptions. Yahoo and ODP are directories. The advantage is more intelligent searches, more relevant and higher quality results, and more organization in the result structure, such as subject categories.
Search engines list all websites, all webpages, anything reachable on the Web. This includes useless sites; sites of zero quality or content; sites that are just lists of links with no content of their own; sites just doing PR or sales; sites that are "broken" (e.g. don't display properly, or are missing information or have bad links); sites that are basically "portal sites" with no or token content, trying to get you to another site. Anyone who's used a search engine knows this; you get a lot of useless results from your search. Directories have humans selecting and editing the site listings. So the resulting quality can be a good deal higher.
How I edit on ODP: I look for quality of content primarily, then for clarity and organization. I find that most organizations that have already been putting together pamphlets and factsheets for the public, e.g. the American Lung Association, have good websites. But quality is where you find it; good websites have sprung from from academic, commercial, government, and grassroots organizations. One of the questions I ask myself when editing is: does this site inform people, does it answer questions, does it summarize and present knowledge well? ODP also has editing guidelines to help editors decide whether and where to list a site.
Sites are added to ODP in two ways: the editor adds them, or someone submits a site and the editor accepts it. Anyone can submit a site. A regular stream of submissions arrives at the tobacco category of ODP every day. For my editing, it doesn't make any difference whether I find a site or someone submits it: either way, I apply the same criteria, and make a decision to accept it, reject it, or resubmit it to some other completely different category. If I accept it, I then decide which subcategory it fits best.
The sites I've added could fall into three basic groups: great sites I knew about for years, which were generally added in the first few months of ODP; sites brought to my attention by others, either as submissions to ODP or suggestions from other people knowledgeable about tobacco; and sites I discovered in my own web surfing, looking for information about tobacco or tobacco issues. That third group has taught me a little about search for tobacco sites on the web.
First thing is, the search engines vary quite a bit. Some search engines have greater "depth" than others (index more sites/pages). Some have better indexing. Some have more query options. Some have better user interfaces to express your query. Some search other search engines on your behalf. So if you're looking for something on the web (and you can't find it in the Open Directory) you can't use just one search engine. Or conversely, if you used just one search engine and didn't find what you were looking for, you can't conclude that it's not on the web.
Currently, I use the following six search engines:
AllTheWeb: fast, particularly on "anded" searches; good depth; but little order or structure to results.
Metacrawler: comprehensive; easy to modify search; but slow.
Northernlight: fast, good depth, fair presentation, but annoying presentation of "special collection" (pay to see) materials along with websites.
Google: generally good order to results, fair depth, but harder to express and modify query.
Infind: reasonably fast, reasonable structure of results, but poor depth.
Altavista: can express complex queries better than others, but depth isn't as great.
Second, the search terms used can make a big difference. For instance, suppose you're interested in youth smoking. Here are some different queries that you might expect to be about the same, but that will likely get very different results. "Underage smoking" will likely get you tobacco industry PR, and articles in news and general interest magazines with little real information. "Teen smoking" will get a few more health sites, e.g. the Mayo Clinic, but will also get you politician sites announcing how against teen smoking they are, as well as sites selling very questionable quit-smoking products, against with little real information. "Youth smoking" will do about the same. "Smoking young people" and "smoking kids" will do a little better, but not much. But "tobacco kids" and "tobacco youth" do much better, returning sites with original content, e.g. summaries of relevant scientific research on incidence and causes.
So often you have to try different search terms to find all the sites that are out there. This can be combined with use of different search engines: you can use all terms with all engines. That can indeed be tedious, but it's a useful technique.
Third, when looking at the sites returned, be prepared to page through the site listings. The best sites don't always arrive in that first group of 10 or whatever. In fact, certain sites use sophisticated methods to fool search engines into displaying them higher in the listings. That can push higher quality or more relevant sites lower. So be prepared to view many pages of sites before finding a site.
Fourth, when you find sites you like, follow the links on those sites to other sites. This is essentially the concept of the web itself: sites provide links to related sites; quality sites tend to provide quality links. For instance, Tobacco BBS and Simon Chapman's Tobacco Control Super Site both feature extensive lists of links.
Fifth, revisit. Go back to good sites you've already found to see if they have any new material or resources. And re-do your searches to see if any new sites have appeared that the search engine has picked up recently.
Sixth, before using any search engine, use the directories. The two major directories are Yahoo and ODP. Each has tobacco categories and subcategories that organize sites by subject. Remember you can search the directories for both sites and categories. If you find a site in a directory you like, look at the other sites in that category. If you have used the directories and are not finding sites, go ahead and use the search engines, which will have greater depth.
Seventh, ask knowledgeable people! Ask them what sites they visit, they use, they consider important, they recommend.
Q2. Looking at the ODP's tobacco categories I see that many of them post at the bottom the "needs an editor" sign. You also said to me that for now you were the only editor for tobacco: what happened to the others? What happened to Kaz (who is still mentioned as an editor in many categories), Is there a big turnover ? should tobacco control advocates apply to become ODP's editors ?
There have been a few tobacco editors, but at present I'm basically it. Kaz is still listed, and is still actively editing other ODP categories, but has not done editing in the tobacco categories lately. There's not a big turnover, no (although ODP itself is so new, it's hard to say).
Yes, tobacco control advocates should definitely apply to become editors of ODP tobacco categories. The strength of ODP is its ability to use the existing knowledge base, people who are experienced in their subject area.
Also, you don't have to be an editor to submit sites to ODP! Anyone can do that. Just go to the category you want to submit the site to and click "add URL".
I also welcome comments on existing ODP tobacco listings, categories, and organization. You can email me through ODP or at email@example.com. (One note: ODP also has categories on tobacco that are outside the top-level Health category, such as Recreation/Smoking, and Shopping/Tobacco; I do not edit those).
Q3. A few sites seem more equal than others and you give them some sort of a star as a recognition of their special value ? Can you tell us what makes a site especially valuable ? what criteria do you use ?
The star is ODP's designation for a "cool site", a site that stands out among the other sites in the category, or the site the editor considers the most definitive site on a subject.
This is often a site with significant original content and outstanding organization and presentation. In the tobacco categories there are now so many great sites out there that fit this description, it can be a tough call. One criterion I use: would this site be the most likely to have answers to an ODP user's questions on the subject? Another criterion: would the answers be definitive? Another: would the answers be the most complete, incorporating all the information available on the subject?
For example, in the subject of secondhand smoke and its health effects on children, the WHO report from January 1999 could be considered definitive and complete, and is outstanding among the online resources on the subject. That's why I gave it the "cool site" designation in the corresponding ODP category. It also scores well for organization. It's not the best presentation; the writing is dry and the "production values" of the web page design are poor. But overall it stands out among the other sites in the category; it's one of the first places to go.
ODP does not require a "cool" site in each category. Just as quality varies on the web, the recognition of it should reflect that on ODP.
Q4. For me updating is a crucial component (by the way I would prefer that you post the last updated notice at the top rather than at the bottom). How often do you update ? and do you get rid of materials that are outdated ? With so much info piling up I would imagine after a while there is a need to move some into an archive vault ? or do you keep everything together ?
The first level of updating is getting rid of dead links (page or site not found; the infamous 404 errors). Fortunately, ODP has a daemon that runs about once a month and flags stale links for editors. This is similar to many link checking tools, it's just automated and integrated with the ODP editing tools. It shows the editors which sites have returned errors. It's up to the editor then to find out if the 404 error is due to site moved, page moved, site dead, material removed, transitory error, or what, and deal with each accordingly. I find that web sites reorganize themselves, change hosts, change domains, and so on more often than go away altogether. Fixing dead links is thus usually a matter of updating the link.
The second level of updating is removing outdated material. Some sites for instance go defunct, stop adding material, maintain calendars that haven't changed in years; it appears the organization has gone away but its web page remains. Other times, the material itself is just outdated. It's up to the editor to maintain his categories on this. I go through and remove/move sites/pages every few months or so.
There's no archive vault as such, but an editor can create categories for material of older or historical interest. For instance:
The biggest challenge is new material. The web is expanding at an incredible rate. Sites come online and don't always submit themselves to the directories. And tobacco is a dynamic area right now; all sorts of information resources are coming into existence, or expanding, all the time. I find them by bumping into them by accident, hearing about them in the health community, or seeing them turn up in a search engine. So this kind of updating happens almost every day; I notice a tobacco site that's missing in ODP and I add it.
Q5. Do you see an evolution , trends, in the web sites devoted to tobacco ? What are the most recent sites you prefer (if any) and which ones do you consider the best (old and new together) ?
In the beginning, there was Tobacco BBS :-)
I think the trends could be summarized as follows:
1. Improvement in the sites that were already good. Tobacco BBS is an outstanding example of this.
2. Emergence of completely new sites. Thetruth.com is an outstanding example of this.
3. Tobacco control sites have developed good focus yet also good integration. Smokefreemd.com is a good example of this; it maintains its focus of Maryland tobacco issues, but it covers and makes connections to the major events happening nationally and worldwide, and to policy questions that apply in Maryland as well as anywhere.
4. More sites with a particular focus, e.g. public policy analysis of different tobacco control approaches.
5. More sites not primarily about tobacco or tobacco control that have tobacco sections; e.g. dental sites are much more likely now to have a page or two explaining for patients the dental effects of smoking.
6. More really crappy sites selling highly questionable quit-smoking products.
7. Stealth sites from the tobacco industry, pretending to be educational or even anti-smoking, broadcasting standard industry PR.
8. On tobacco control sites, more and better use of tobacco industry documents, showing more clearly and specifically how the industry plans, strategizes, markets, engineers, lobbies, litigates, and plans years and decades in advance how to derail and dilute tobacco control.
Best sites, best of the old and new:
NCI Monograph: Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke http://rex.nci.nih.gov/NCI_MONOGRAPHS/MONO10/MONO10.htm
As you can see, it's hard to get it down to a short list! I had trouble getting it down to this list of 50 sites. And there are many, many more that could be named. However I think health organizations and smokefree advocates can be proud to have put so many outstanding resources on the Internet.
Q6. Is there anything you would like to add?
Yes; a couple comments on the value and limits of the Internet for tobacco information.
It's been said that the Internet can level the playing field. This has profound implications for tobacco, because for 50 years the industry has tilted the playing field to its advantage by using its money and media influence.
The tobacco industry has been used to buying silence and cooperation from major media outlets. It uses its marketing dollars and litigation intimidation to get hard-hitting stories watered down, pulled, or buried. And when tobacco stories do run, the industry has been very effective in getting its PR spin reported as straight news in the story. Major media like newspapers and TV are influenced by the industry. It can be very difficult to speak the truth about this industry and be heard by anyone.
But on the Internet, major media do not control what the public sees and hears. So about 5 years ago, suddenly you could speak the truth about this industry, and reach millions of people, without having to own a newspaper or TV station. Researchers, health organizations, and smokefree advocates could put up websites and present a compelling, hardhitting, and well documented picture of how this industry spreads smoking. I see this as a revolution, and an underappreciated one.
Perhaps the best example is the Brown and Williamson papers on UCSF's website. The industry tried very, very hard to shut it down. You could see why: the documents exposed some of the industry's darkest secrets. And the contrast was so striking between the story the industry had been telling to the public, and what it says privately. The public could see the beautiful PR mask removed from the industry's face, and the festering maggots underneath.
Now, it wasn't just the Internet that made this happen. If the University of California had caved in to the tobacco industry, as CBS and ABC had done, we probably would never have seen these documents, on the Internet or anywhere. But the fact that interested people around the world could see for themselves the direct evidence of industry deception, manipulation, and coverup, was just revolutionary. The best and strongest media coverage (PBS) didn't even come close to telling the story that the UCSF website was letting the documents themselves tell.
Another example: telling the full picture of tobacco disease and death. This is a product that kills one out of five Americans, that cuts millions of lives short, that maims and disables millions more, but you'll seldom see those facts mentioned on major news media. Stories on tobacco do run, but they soft-pedal tobacco's effects, and they're usually filled with industry spin: "risk factor" and "hazards associated with" instead of the plain facts of cause, disease, and death. Or tobacco is just left out of the story. Take Joe DiMaggio's recent death: in the dozens of stories that appeared about it, try to find even one that reports he died of lung cancer caused by smoking.
Health organizations, health educators, and smokefree advocates tell the truth, of course. But they seldom get major media access. Meanwhile the tobacco industry spends $6 billion a year to send pro-smoking messages. Now that's a tilted playing field. But the Internet has done much to level that. For a few thousand bucks a year, a health organization or a local smokefree coalition can put up a website, and speak the truth about tobacco. The full truth -- no soft-pedaling. Used as intended, the product kills the customers; the product is designed to be addictive; the product also kills the people nearest to the customers; the product is a leading cause of death in American and the world; the product is our number one health problem; the product causes far more disease and death than all illegal drugs combined; 500 million people alive today will die from tobacco, at present trends; the industry targets youth, women, and minorities. And so on.
So I think that the Internet has been an effective way for health and smokefree organizations to tell the truth about the industry and the product, to inform the public about the causes and effects of smoking. And I think that the more informed the public becomes, the more savvy they become regarding industry PR. And I think that's become a powerful force in its own right.
The rise of the modern tobacco industry is closely paralleled by the rise of the modern PR industry, and this is no accident. You might say Philip Morris grew up with Ted Bates, Hill and Knowlton, and Burson-Marsteller. The industry has managed to frame tobacco issues in ways convenient to it for 40 years. E.g. smoking: an adult choice that carries risks that informed adults take because they like to smoke; the industry has invested literally billions of dollars into pushing that framing. It's been a strategic investment for the industry: once the public accepts that framing, it's easy to blame the victim, hard to see the industry conduct. And industry's frame is easy to discern in most tobacco stories in the major media.
But it's getting harder every day for PM to push that PR. The framing isn't credible any more. I credit a large chunk of this to tobacco advocacy on the Internet. Websites by health organizations and advocates have exposed the industry's frame; held it up to the light; contrasted it with the facts, and often with the industry's own words. Best of all, some sites, notably the Advocacy Institute and ANR, have explained the nuts and bolts of industry PR programs and campaigns. This has been a powerful resource, smashing the industry's PR mask by showing exactly how it's constructed.
Now, everyone thinks of the Internet as the web and websites. But it's also email, discussion groups; interaction. Websites are great for getting informed, informing the public. Email lists are great for advocates communicating with each another, discussing, strategizing, keeping on top of current issues, and rapidly evolving issues; they're also great for tapping into the experience and wisdom of longtime advocates. I've come to realize there's just no substitute for the understanding in the heads of people who've been fighting the industry for 10, 20, 30 years; email lists are one way to share that.
This brings us to some of the limits of the Internet. Although dedicated advocates and researchers have placed entire books online, there are still critical resources that are found only in books. Although it is nice you can order books over the Internet; e.g.:
It should also be mentioned that there are also critical resources, information, illustrations, and analysis, found only in videos and training sessions such as ANR's.
Finally, at some point there's no substitute for interactions with well, real live people :-) This of course means conferences, workshops, meetings, and so on.
For now, on the Internet, the closest you can come to that is transcripts of interviews and discussions. However that can be very helpful. Here are some I like:
Thank you Jon for taking the time to be with us today.