Synopsis And Comments On The IARC Study On ETS

Yet another fight against corruption -- Return to main page


By Martha Perske and Wanda Hamilton

The WHO study -- one of the largest ever conducted on ETS and lung cancer risk in non-smokers -- was commissioned by WHO and coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The results of the study show no statistically significant association between lung cancer and exposure to ETS in the home, the workplace, vehicles, or public places such as restaurants. The study emphasized that 'Vehicles and public indoor settings did not represent an important source of ETS exposure.' Moreover, the study found a statistically significant DECREASED risk of lung cancer in adulthood for those non-smokers exposed to ETS as children. In simple words, that means there was a PROTECTIVEeffect from exposure to ETS during childhood.


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The study was eventually published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (l998;90:1440-50), but only after the London Telegraph (and the London Times) broke a story on the findings of the study and accused WHO of suppressing the information ("Passive smoking doesn't cause cancer--official,"by Victoria Macdonald, London Telegraph, 3/8/98). U.K. ASH filed a complaint with the U.K. Press Complaints Commission against the Telegraph, alleging it had misrepresented the results of the WHO study. The Telegraph stuck by its story and by October l998 the Commission found for the Telegraph and rejected ASH's complaint. By then the WHO study had been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (in early October, l998) and the Telegraph was obviously vindicated.

It appeared to many that WHO did consider suppressing the research altogether, but the London press forced them to publish, and that they even tried to discredit their own studyat first, saying it wasn't large enough (though it was only 3 cases short of being the largest ever done).

According to an article by Terence Corcoran at the Globe and Mail ("Ban anti-tobacco activists," March 17, 1998) following the London Telegraph's exposure of the findings, some WHO anti-tobacco workers even tried to deny the very existence of the study: "Neil Collishaw, a former Health Canada statistician who now works the anti-tobacco desk at WHO in Geneva, suggested that the research didn't exist. 'This was certainly nothing done in my office.' Then he added: 'But if my organization...commissioned it, it's strange I haven't heard of it.' Strange indeed, since the WHO study is a well-known project and one of the largest original investigations into second-hand smoke ever undertaken."

However, The Economist is of different opinion (March 14-20, 1998). It says WHO tried to get its findings published in the British Medical Journal in 1997, to no avail.

"...Richard Peto, an epidemiologist at Oxford Univeristy who advises the WHO, says that accusations of a cover-up are nonsense. The WHO tried to get its findings published by the British Medical Journal late last year, but they were rejected on the grounds that the BMJ had just published a much bigger 'meta-analysis' study on passive smoking, collating almost 40 research papers on more than 4,000 cancer patients."

"This larger study came to the conclusion that there was indeed an increased risk of lung cancer from passive smoking (25% higher than for those living in a smoke-free environment), but that it was tiny compared with the 2,000% increased risk for active smokers. The BMJ therefore decided that the WHO's results were not noteworthy enough to print. The WHO says it is still trying to have the study published. It submitted the research to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in February and is waiting for it to be peer-reviewed."

Regardless of how things really unfolded, the WHO did not announce to the world (as an honest entity should have done) that, according to its own study, ETS does not represent a hazard to the non-smoker, which is what this and a myriad of other studiesactually demonstrated.

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