Alarm Without Foundation Over The Last Passive Smoke Study: Just The Usual Propaganda



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MARCH 13, 2001 - All over the world, press reports are stating that a new study has "demonstrated" the dangers of passive smoke. One report goes like this: "Passive smoke kills - especially women. The number of non-smoking women at risk of cancer increases (5-6 times) if they live with a smoking man. The study, published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is unique because of the approach taken, that is, the direct measurement of carcinogens in the urine of the subjects."

FORCES' researchers, doctors and scientists immediately started a search for the study, the title of which was not even specified in reports. The study turned out to be "Metabolites of a Tobacco-Specific Lung Carcinogen in Nonsmoking Women Exposed to Environmental Tobacco Smoke", by Kristin E. Anderson, Steven G. Carmella, Ming Ye, Robin L. Bliss, Chap Le, Lois Murphy, Stephen S. Hecht of the University of Minnesota, published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 93, No. 5, 378-381, March 7, 2001. If the above link does not work, click here. The funding source for the study is not known at this time, though it seems that public money is involved.

The FORCES international team has offered the following comments after examination:


Firstly, this is not the first study to investigate the so-called "damages" of passive smoke within domestic walls. Other studies of greater size and duration have been already performed, mainly in the United States. Those studies indicated a small risk elevation even after the data were "massaged" or "interpreted" according to the usual propagandistic agendas. What makes this study unique of its kind is the direct quantification of nitrosamines in the urine of women who live with smokers. Incidentally, some press reports have stated that the risk increase is six times instead of five. Is the extra "time" for effect, as the rest of the reports are, since their tone indicates that it's taken as a given that passive smoke is dangerous" Some statements, such as that passive smoke kills especially women, are ridiculous because, even assuming that passive smoke hurts, it would hurt both sexes equally. Those statements are also incompetent and biased, since there is absolutely no proof that passive smoke is harmful, and even less that it may cause death or disease. Finally, and this is important, it is not the number of the nonsmoking women at risk that increases, but the relative risk. An increment of 600% (six times the risk)  is absurd, because the most extreme risk ever recorded for passive smoke is 19%, and the average of all the ETS studies performed since 1992 has shown an increment of less than 10%  (1) - even after all the "data massaging" performed to increase the perception of danger.

As to the study and its authors, the Steven Hecht group has produced several hundred publications on tobacco's nitrosamines (TSNA - Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamines) and they are all about the same. No one can say for sure that these substances are responsible for the toxicity of tobacco in smokers, and even less in nonsmokers. First, they are only one of several tens of components in the smoke that could cause tumours in certain experimental conditions. Second, the carcinogenic power of TSNAs has been observed only in certain lab animals at immense dosages: grams (instead of milligrams) of TSNAs, administered every two or three days for periods of 1.5 years or longer. Finally, notwithstanding these results and the great noise made over nitrosamines in general, there is no epidemiological indication that these substances have ever caused tumours in humans - and one can imagine how much the professional anti-smokers have tried to demonstrate that for over 30 years, with any means available. The abstract of the study itself states: "[The TNSAs] could increase the risk of lung cancer". Could, of course; anything could. But do they"

As is the case for all work on TSNAs, this study is simply unrealistic, and its sole function is to be a corollary to be used by professional antismokers to enhance their epidemiological fantasies. Actually, a work like this cannot be refuted on merits, because it has none. It offers no direct connections; only speculations that TSNAs could have a carcinogenic connection. But notwithstanding their arrogance, antismoking researchers seem to be unwilling to find the guts to quantify the possible contribution of TSNAs in relation to other toxic substances in smoke, because they know very well that to go beyond the vaguest speculations could be professionally too dangerous. The augment of nitrosamines measured by this study indeed exists, but five times an infinitesimal quantity is still an infinitesimal quantity, thus it cannot have any significant effect.

Highlighting this lack of substance is the only answer that those who keep repeating "could" deserve. With "could", in fact, fears without foundation are created in order to first influence, then justify, policies that marginalize smokers and sometimes even throw them in jail. We are talking about, therefore, a form of "scientific cowardice" that is well represented by this study, since anyone nowadays can make the most absurd statements on passive smoke with impunity from under the skirt of the Surgeon General, or the World Health Organization.

There are therefore no demonstrable dangers for those who are occasionally close to smokers, or even for those who work or live with them. It follows that smokers do not have to feel guilty, and nonsmokers don't have to perceive passive smoke as a threat to their health.



We have reproduced the article to add a few explanatory notes. Click here to see Milloy's original piece.

Friday, March 9, 2001 - Researchers reported this week that nonsmokers living with smokers are exposed to tobacco smoke. That's obviously not news. So that's not how the study was touted by the researchers and reported by the media.

"Study: Wives of smokers absorb cancer chemicals from smoke," alarmed an Associated Press headline.

Dr. Stephen Hecht and other University of Minnesota researchers compared blood samples from 23 women who lived with smokers with urine samples from 22 women who lived with nonsmokers.

Hecht reported that the women who lived with smokers had blood levels of two chemicals - NNAL and NNAL-Gluc - about five times higher than the women who lived with nonsmokers.

The chemicals are produced when the body metabolizes a chemical called NNK, a component of tobacco smoke.

Laboratory experiments indicate that massive doses of NNK - on the order of the NNK exposure from smoking two packs of cigarettes per day for 40 years - increase lung cancer rates in rodents. Based on finding the byproducts of NNK in the women exposed to secondhand smoke and NNK being associated with cancer in lab animals, Hecht concluded to the Associated Press, "A number of studies have shown a connection between environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer. Our study provides the first biochemical support for this data."

If spin were science, Hecht would win a Nobel Prize.

Biochemistry aside, Hecht's grossly misrepresented the state of the science on secondhand smoke and lung cancer. A credible link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer remains elusive despite more than 40 published studies.

The largest-ever study on secondhand smoke and lung cancer, published in 1998 by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, reported no statistically significant increase (1) in lung cancer risk associated with exposure to secondhand smoke.

That result was no surprise. It was the result the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should have reported in its notorious 1993 secondhand smoke risk assessment - the study that greatly accelerated efforts to ban smoking in public places.

At the time of the EPA study, there were about 30 studies from around the world involving human populations exposed to secondhand smoke. Some studies reported weak statistical associations between exposure to secondhand smoke and lung cancer. The vast majority of studies reported no statistical association.

None of the studies were very good. All were statistical, not scientific in nature. All lacked data on how much secondhand smoke study subjects were exposed to.

But since the EPA already had pre-determined that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer - issuing guidelines for banning workplace smoking in 1989 - something had to be done to whip the science into shape.

The EPA statistically combined the results from the 11 published studies of U.S. populations. The agency hoped that statistical magic could be worked on the pooled results to produce the "correct" answer.

Alas, there was still no joy for the EPA. The statistical combination produced yet another a weak association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. The association was not statistically significant (1), meaning that the agency could not rule out that the association occurred by chance.

More bad news arrived. Two more studies were published of U.S. populations exposed to secondhand smoke. Neither associated secondhand smoke with increased lung cancer risk.

Back to the drawing board in panic, the EPA brazenly abandoned standard statistical practices. The agency released a fudged result as its final product, concluding that secondhand smoke was a lung carcinogen (2) that caused 3,000 deaths per year.

The tobacco industry challenged the EPA in court. A federal judge vacated the EPA's main conclusions stating that,"EPA disregarded information and made findings on selective information; ... deviated from its [standard procedures]; failed to disclose important findings and reasoning; and left significant questions without answers. EPA's conduct left substantial holes in the administrative records."

The ruling should have been a devastating blow to the hysteria surrounding secondhand smoke, except that it came more than five years after the EPA issued its report. The anti-tobacco industry exploited that time to convert the EPA's secondhand smoke junk science into conventional wisdom.

Now researchers like Hecht unabashedly cite the nonexistent EPA report to support the unsubstantiated assertion that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer.

Without the EPA report, after all, Hecht's new study is merely biochemical support that nonsmokers living with smokers are exposed to tobacco smoke.

Did taxpayer dollars need to be spent to prove that"

- Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of

  1. Note: statistically significant increase means that the amount of statistical risk is large enough to remove doubts due to statistical error, co-factors and confounders. Note that it is quite rare that in any study - expecially those multifactorial in nature - there is no risk elevation because of the combined, although small, effect of concomitant causes. It is for that reason that, unless the risk elevation is large, it is ignored, and defined not statistically significant. A risk increase of up to two times (200%) is considered not statistically significant. But junk science, such as that used in antismoking propaganda, exploits small risk elevations to scare the population (which is ignorant about this statistical reality) throught the media, to achieve behaviour modification. It is understandable that a 200% increased risk, though not fully understood by the public, is perceived as a whole lot of danger, while in actuality it is so small, it cannot be taken into consideration. The highest risk elevation for lung cancer from passive smoke ever recorded is 19%.
  2. 20% risk elevation! See (1).





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