Michael McFadden, author of "Dissecting Anti-Smokers’ Brains", dissects the latest Surgeon General’s report on the effects of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. Mr. McFadden details why this latest report goes far beyond the realm of credible science, as well as the bounds of public credulity.
The new Surgeon General’s Report, or at least the spin it’s being given in the press, can be summed up nicely in a single word: Nonsense.
Why? Simple: The Report, despite its impressive 700 page summary of largely well-done science, takes the science involved and then distorts it to support two ulterior goals:
1) Instilling an unreasonable fear of a practice that has become more popular in recent years than in past times, namely “social smoking” where people who do not normally smoke will join friends who have been exiled to smoking areas and light up with those friends to make them feel more comfortable. And,
2) Basically fabricating a fear from the almost completely non-existent evidence that there could be any significant level of harm from occasional or mild exposures to the smoke of others.
To take the second point first, in any sort of rationally practical terms you are NOT putting anyone at "risk" of damage to their lungs or their heart if you light up a cigarette around them. In terms of wild wacko fantasyland terms of course it can be a different story, but that’s not how science and news reportage is supposed to work.
What the Surgeon General and her "evil minions" like Terry Pechacek have done is taken some basic scientific findings and twisted them out of all proportion to reality in order to further a political goal. Are wisps of secondary smoke dangerous in terms of cancer? Only in the sense that occasional beams of sunlight peeking through cracks in an awning or reflecting off a passing car are dangerous. Are they dangerous to the heart? Only in the sense that heating a kettle of tea on a gas stove or eating a bowl of cornflakes is dangerous.
In an absolutist, "crazy" sort of sense the slightest touch of sunlight or the ingestion of even a slightly sugary food like "healthy" cornflakes could be claimed to be "dangerous" as they minutely increase the chance of a cancer or produce a change in heart rate or blood flow dynamics. In any sane world, of course such interpretations would be dismissed. Normal exposures to the levels of secondary smoke that would commonly be found in decently ventilated bars, restaurants, or other such venues are not dangerous in terms of any rational view of life of any normal human being.
40 years ago most people realized this and laughed at the nuts who worried about such things. But the last 40 years have seen an incredible amount of expenditure on studies, press releases, TV ads and such things all designed to play up the fear of wisps of smoke in pursuit of the strategy laid out at the 1975 World Conference on Smoking and Health chaired by Sir George Godber. The consensus of that conference was that to achieve the public support needed to eventually eliminate smoking it would first be necessary "to foster an atmosphere where it was perceived that active smokers would injure those around them."
This latest Report from the Surgeon General simply continues and extends this argument by taking the evidence of harm from fairly low but regular smoking patterns involving one or two packets of cigarettes per week, and confusing them with the far lower levels of exposure experienced by nonsmokers who have either occasional or even regular exposures to low levels of secondary smoke.
To offer just one example from the Report, on page 370 of the “Coronary Blood Flow” section, after hundreds of words detailing the effects of first hand smoking on blood flow, the Surgeon General calls upon the 2001 study by Ryo Otsuka to justify extending the claims to secondary smoke exposure. In the strategically spotlighted words of this section of the Report itself, “exposure to secondhand smoke for 30 minutes abruptly reduces coronary blood flow velocity in nonsmokers, as assessed by echocardiography.”
Why is this example notable? Simple: Otsuka’s study used nonsmokers who religiously avoided smoke in their daily lives, forced them to sign papers acknowledging potentially dangerous conditions and then stuck them in a chamber filled with smoke levels literally 300% more dense than those measured in the middle of the smoking sections of pressurized aircraft back in the 1980s. Added to this prejudicial setup, there was no control. Even a school science project would have had a sham model and “protocol signing” with subjects exposed to harmless but irritating odors and fog. The control study results would probably have been identical.
This study seems to have been the best (actually about the only) example the Surgeon General could come up to justify the claim that secondary smoke exposure affected blood flow. Not very convincing, eh? And yet it was given the strategically important position at the wrap up of the Coronary Flow section with the concept then immediately repeated in the final summary.
The overall Report references thousands of studies, some of them perhaps reasonably strong, a lot of them probably quite weak if my examinations of the ones headlined to the media have been representative, and some of them involving smoking conditions roughly equivalent to being locked in a sealed telephone booth with 100 chain-smoking midget clowns. The Report then pasted it all together, gave it a truly massive spin, and made it seem like it applies to the normal everyday exposures commonly experienced by people.
The first point claimed, that there’s a significant danger from "occasional smoking," could be slightly more realistic since it potentially involves an exposure many times greater than that of normal secondary smoke exposure, but again the Surgeon General takes the base science and explodes it for propaganda effect. Can "one puff of smoke" give you a heart attack? Perhaps… in the same sense that one cup of coffee or one chocolate bar or your kid jumping out from behind the couch and saying "Boo Daddy!" could kill you. (In terms of secondary smoke we could ask, “Can a single whiff of smoke kill you?" Perhaps… in the same sense that single sip of tea or Coca-Cola, the exhaust of one car passing by you on a quiet street, a single McWhopperie french fry, or the sight of an advertisement where someone is wearing a scary mask can kill you.)
Can that single puff of smoke kill you someday in the far future from cancer? Only in the sense that a single stray beam of sunshine hitting your hand as you reach out to grab the morning paper might similarly kill you, or in the sense that briefly walking into a restaurant where people are imbibing glassfuls of the highly volatile Class A Carcinogen known as ethyl alcohol might kill you. But without an external motivation no one in their right mind would mount such a arguments.
So, am I saying the SG is not in her right mind? Of course not. What I *am* saying is that the SG and this Report are representing a VERY powerful external motivation: the desire to reduce or even eliminate tobacco smoking altogether because of evidence that regular smoking is bad for one’s health is indeed quite strong. Simply communicating that fact to people has NOT produced the elimination of smoking, so the antismoking lobby has consistently moved more and more into the KrazyLand claims about wisps of secondary smoke, the deadly threat of "third hand" smoke, and even the insanity of "fourth hand" smoke where you might die if you are simply approached by someone who might have earlier been near a smoker (And no, I am not making any of that up… not even the last item. See:
The main difference between the current report and previous reports seems to lie in its willingness to confuse the modest risks of low levels of regular smoking with the fantasyland risks of an occasional cigarette or low levels of secondary smoke exposure. The confusion seems to be deliberate and played up deliberately for the press as part of the general larger scheme to reduce and eliminate smoking through social engineering rather than through honest communication that could stand on its own. Temperance movements of the past focusing on drinking and drugs often laid the foundation for their own demise when they overstepped their bounds and lost public faith and support as they expanded their claims beyond what even the most gullible were willing to believe. We may have reached that cusp in today’s Great Antismoking Crusade.
Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains"