Further Information

A closer look at statistics on smoking and health | Prof. Peter Finch
Article Published: circa 1992

Type: Articles and Dissertations
Further Information

We reproduce this paper from Prof. Peter Finch. The document dates back to circa 1992.

Prof. Peter Finch has been Foundation Professor of Mathematical Statistics at Monash University, Australia, since 1964. He has contributed to countless scholarly journals including The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Information Sciences, The Australian Journal of Statistics, The Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Acta Mathematica Scientia, Biometrics, The European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology, as well as to such books as The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, The Encyclopedia of Statistical Science and The Foundations of Statistical Theories in the Physical Sciences.

In this paper, the statistical and perception frauds concerning smoking and smokers, their risks and “cost” to society, are examined with the eyes of the statistician.

If you are an active smoker, how much greater do you think that your risk is to die of, for example, ischaemic heart disease? Do you think that you have 80% or 50% more chance than a non-smoker? Read this slowly and very carefully – and possibly more than once: Prof. Finch uses here the very figures of the antitobacco propaganda.

“But if we ask not only by what factor smoking increases the chance of dying from IHD, but also by what factor smoking reduced the chance of escaping death from IHD, the same facts appear in a different light. To answer this second question, note that 99,993 per 100,000 non-smokers escape death from IHD whereas only 99,896 smokers do so. Since 99,896 divided by 99,993 is 0.999, the factor in question is 0.999.”

“In other words, the data tell us not only that smoking is associated with a 15-fold increase in risk of death from IHD but also that the smoker has 99.9 percent of the chance of a non-smoker of escaping death from IHD.”

“The point here is not that the second calculation exonerates smoking but that presenting only the result of the first calculation suppresses an aspect of the data that could lessen the force of the message that 'smoking kills'. For telling a 40- year old male heavy smoker that his chance of not dying from IHD is about 99.9 percent of that of a comparable non-smoker is much less likely to persuade him to abandon smoking than telling him that his chance of dying from IHD is almost 15 times that of a comparable non-smoker.”

Furthermore, please understand that all of this is based on dubious and bias-prone statistics, and risk assessment, which does not provide evidence of causality. In other words, the smoker who dies from IHD could have died from one or any possible interaction of the other hundreds (close to 300) factors that are suspected to contribute to IHD. Identical reasoning applies to lung cancer (99.6% of the chances of the non smoker to escape it) and to all the other “tobacco-related” diseases – which are also common in non-smokers!

“Public health” insists that it is educating the public. Thus an instinctive question arises: how come this is not explained to us? The answer is equally instinctive: because contemporary “public health” is not educating the public, but it is intentionally misleading it to pave the road for pharmaceutical marketing and social control.

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