Second-Hand Smoke Study 'garbage Science'

Monday 9 March 1998

Activists, scientists united in opposition to controversial report

Charles Enman
The Ottawa Citizen

Experts have blasted a study purportedly from the World Health Association that suggests second-hand smoke does not cause lung cancer.

"This is simply not sound science," said David Sweanor, the Ottawa-based lawyer for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association. "The only place we have seen this kind of garbage is from the tobacco industry."

Jim Repace of Maryland, author of more papers on second-hand smoke than anyone in the world, describes the study as "propaganda, not science."

The study was said to have been commissioned by the World Health Organization, long known for its belief second-hand smoke causes cancer.

The seven-country European study was co-ordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France. It was described as "one of the largest ever to look at the link between passive smoking and lung cancer, and eagerly awaited by medical experts and anti-tobacco groups."

Researchers compared 650 lung-cancer patients with 1,542 healthy people. Their data were said to suggest there not only is no connection between second-hand smoke and lung cancer, but that second-hand smoke might even have a slight protective anti-cancer effect.

If you were surprised to find such a conclusion coming from study instigated by the World Health Association, so too was the acting chief of the UN organization's tobacco program.

"This was certainly nothing done in my office," said Neil Collishaw, who works in the WHO's Geneva offices.

Mr. Collishaw described the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a "sister" agency.

"But if my organization, as you say, commissioned it, it's strange I haven't heard of it," he said. "Particularly strange, since it's said to have been 'eagerly awaited.' "

As for the study being one of the largest ever on the topic, Mr. Collishaw snorted.

"This is certainly untrue. One of the earliest studies, conducted in Japan, followed hundreds of thousands of people -- and there are other studies in that category."

He said all the larger studies bringing together the data from smaller studies have agreed that passive smoking is a cause of lung cancer.

Mr. Repace, a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who has written 50 papers on second-hand smoke, was even more emphatic.

"The data linking passive smoking and lung cancer are simply overwhelming. This conclusion is shared by every organization of the U.S. federal government with a purview over public health. The American Medical Association and the American Association of Cancer Research agree.

"And the most recent study -- by the California State Environmental Protection Agency -- not only links second-hand smoke with lung cancer, but with nasal sinus cancer, as well."

Not all studies find a causal link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer, Mr. Repace acknowledges. But of the 30 studies that had been done by 1992, 24 did. The remaining six were either neutral, flawed by distorting factors, or had only slight statistical significance.

"So we had 24 studies that were positive," he said. "If passive smoking has no effect on lung cancer, what's the probability of this result? Only six in 10,000."

Fourteen of the 30 studies looked at "dose response" to determine whether exposure to second-hand smoke increased the likelihood of developing lung cancer. Ten of them established -- each with a 95-per-cent confidence level -- that there indeed was a dose response. And the chances of that happening, if passive smoking and lung cancer are unconnected, is one in 10 billion, Mr. Repace said.

Since even the tobacco companies now concede that smoking causes lung cancer, the suggestion that second-hand smoking has no connection with lung cancer is "awfully fishy on the intuitive level," he said.

In Ottawa, Mr. Sweanor, lawyer for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, said the small size of the study suggested its results would have no statistical significance.

Mr. Sweanor and Mr. Repace both suspect the tobacco industry leaked the study to the media.

As Mr. Sweanor said, "This has got tobacco industry PR written all over it. It will sell more cigarettes."

And in the nature of misinformation, it's very hard to correct."

It was small wonder, he said, that the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"This is just as misleading as a study that announces that unsafe sex protects you from AIDS. On the face of it, you've got to be suspicious."


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