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The Who's Secondhand Smoke Spin

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MARTHA PERSKE

The WHO's Secondhand Smoke Spin

Date of original release: 2/3/99

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Did anyone notice that the long-awaited World Health Organization (WHO) study on environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) got published"  No surprise if you didn't.  The media was unusually quiet about it, a sure sign that it wasn't good news for anti-smokers.  Nevertheless, it's there in the Oct. 7, 1998, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Results from this large multi-country study were leaked to the press in March 1998, sending anti-smoking activists into a not-too-happy tizzy.  And understandably so.  "A ten-year study carried out for the World Health Organisation has failed to find a clear link between passive smoking and lung cancer," wrote Nigel Hawkes, the science editor of The (London) Times in a March 9, 1998 article.

Not true, responded WHO, which promptly issued a press release  (March 9, 1998) headlined, "Passive Smoking Does Cause Lung Cancer, Do Not Let Them Fool You."

Well, we've now had a chance to read the study, which was carried out by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and, sure enough, it's not good news for the anti-smoking brigade.  The WHO study found no statistically significant increased risk for lung cancer from exposure to ETS in the home, at work, in vehicles or in indoor public settings such as restaurants.  It even found a decreased risk from childhood exposure to ETS, which, taken literally, would suggest that exposure to secondhand smoke during childhood had a protective effect against lung cancer.  (Apparently stunned by their own finding, the study's authors downplayed the decreased risk by referring to it as "no increased risk.")

One would think that such a report would warrant headlines such as "No Significant Risk from Secondhand Smoke" or "Down with Smoking Bans."  Instead, the Oct. 7, 1998, Washington Post headline read "Slightly Higher Cancer Risk for Passive Smokers Found." Other U.S. headlines - what few there were - carried the same message.  No mention by The Washington Post or other U.S. news reports that the "slightly higher cancer risk" was not statistically significant.

Nevertheless, "slight" and "non-significant" is exactly what the IARC researchers found.  So slight and so non-significant that if it pertained to anything but tobacco, it wouldn't warrant mention, let alone scary headlines.

For example, the researchers reported a non-significant odds ratio of 1.16 (a 16 percent increased risk) from exposure to ETS in the home from a smoking spouse.  For the workplace, it was a non-significant 1.17 (a 17 percent increased risk).  Such weak findings are, according to an earlier IARC publication, not to be trusted because anything less than 2.0 "may readily reflect some unperceived bias or confounding factor."  For whatever reason, the IARC researchers did not caution about this in their ETS study, even though the odds ratios are well below 2.0.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out why the anti-smokers are trying in vain to make the WHO study into something it isn't. After all, if ETS isn't the monster the anti-smoking activists portray it to be, there is no scientific justification for smoking bans.  And smoking bans are crucial to their goal of attaining a smoke-free society.  (Translation:  Prohibition.)

The anti-smoking brigade will rant on, but the WHO/IARC study remains published for all to see.  Robert Matthews, science correspondent for The (London) Sunday Telegraph, said it all in one statement, "… WHO had failed to find any convincing evidence that passive smoking causes lung cancer."
Did anyone notice that the long-awaited World Health Organization (WHO) study on environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) got published"  No surprise if you didn't.  The media was unusually quiet about it, a sure sign that it wasn't good news for anti-smokers.  Nevertheless, it's there in the Oct. 7, 1998, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Results from this large multi-country study were leaked to the press in March 1998, sending anti-smoking activists into a not-too-happy tizzy.  And understandably so.  "A ten-year study carried out for the World Health Organisation has failed to find a clear link between passive smoking and lung cancer," wrote Nigel Hawkes, the science editor of The (London) Times in a March 9, 1998 article.

Not true, responded WHO, which promptly issued a press release  (March 9, 1998) headlined, "Passive Smoking Does Cause Lung Cancer, Do Not Let Them Fool You."

Well, we've now had a chance to read the study, which was carried out by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and, sure enough, it's not good news for the anti-smoking brigade.  The WHO study found no statistically significant increased risk for lung cancer from exposure to ETS in the home, at work, in vehicles or in indoor public settings such as restaurants.  It even found a decreased risk from childhood exposure to ETS, which, taken literally, would suggest that exposure to secondhand smoke during childhood had a protective effect against lung cancer.  (Apparently stunned by their own finding, the study's authors downplayed the decreased risk by referring to it as "no increased risk.")

One would think that such a report would warrant headlines such as "No Significant Risk from Secondhand Smoke" or "Down with Smoking Bans."  Instead, the Oct. 7, 1998, Washington Post headline read "Slightly Higher Cancer Risk for Passive Smokers Found." Other U.S. headlines - what few there were - carried the same message.  No mention by The Washington Post or other U.S. news reports that the "slightly higher cancer risk" was not statistically significant.

Nevertheless, "slight" and "non-significant" is exactly what the IARC researchers found.  So slight and so non-significant that if it pertained to anything but tobacco, it wouldn't warrant mention, let alone scary headlines.

For example, the researchers reported a non-significant odds ratio of 1.16 (a 16 percent increased risk) from exposure to ETS in the home from a smoking spouse.  For the workplace, it was a non-significant 1.17 (a 17 percent increased risk).  Such weak findings are, according to an earlier IARC publication, not to be trusted because anything less than 2.0 "may readily reflect some unperceived bias or confounding factor."  For whatever reason, the IARC researchers did not caution about this in their ETS study, even though the odds ratios are well below 2.0.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out why the anti-smokers are trying in vain to make the WHO study into something it isn't. After all, if ETS isn't the monster the anti-smoking activists portray it to be, there is no scientific justification for smoking bans.  And smoking bans are crucial to their goal of attaining a smoke-free society.  (Translation:  Prohibition.)

The anti-smoking brigade will rant on, but the WHO/IARC study remains published for all to see.  Robert Matthews, science correspondent for The (London) Sunday Telegraph, said it all in one statement, "… WHO had failed to find any convincing evidence that passive smoking causes lung cancer."


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