Monday, February 27, 2006

Tobacco Company Claims Smokers' Heart Attack Risk is No Higher than Nonsmokers who Spend 30 Minutes in a Mildly Smoky Chinese Restaurant

In a statement released today, upstart tobacco company Global Tobacco claimed that the risk of a heart attack among smokers has been greatly exaggerated. According to the company, the actual risk of a heart attack among smokers is quite small - equivalent to that of a nonsmoker who breathes in low levels of secondhand smoke for just 30 minutes.

According to a Global Tobacco spokesperson: "A smoker who smokes two and a half packs per day for 45 years is at no more risk of a fatal heart attack than someone who never lit up a cigarette in their life but waited for 30 minutes to pick up take-out Chinese food in a restaurant that allows smoking. In fact, their risk of a fatal myocardial infarction is exactly the same."

In response to Global Tobacco's statement, anti-smoking groups were outraged. They called the claim completely fallacious and challenged Global Tobacco to provide documentation for its claim. One anti-smoking organization threatened to file a lawsuit charging Global Tobacco with consumer fraud for making such an obvious and blatantly fraudulent health claim.

According to a spokesperson for the upstart anti-smoking group Citizens for Truth: "This claim by Global Tobacco is simply an attempt to undermine years of public education about the dangers of smoking. Anyone with common sense knows that someone who has smoked for 40 years cannot possibly have the same risk of a fatal heart attack as someone who walks into a mildly smoky Chinese restaurant for 30 minutes. If Global Tobacco does not retract this statement, we are prepared to file a lawsuit tomorrow charging the company with making a fraudulent health claim under state consumer protection law."

When pressed for documentation of its claim, Global Tobacco defended itself by stating that it was simply taking the claim from material put out by an anti-smoking organization, which stated that: "Even for people without such respiratory conditions, breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly. For example, the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] has warned that breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes (less than the time one might be exposed outdoors on a beach, sitting on a park bench, listening to a concert in a park, etc.) can raise a nonsmoker'’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker."

Global Tobacco pointed out that in its opinion, it was actually being conservative, since the anti-smoking organization's claim related to drifting tobacco smoke such as sitting on a park bench, while its claim related to much higher exposure - waiting for an order of Moo Goo Gai Pan and Kung Bo Chicken in a mildly smoky restaurant. "We're not talking merely about drifting tobacco smoke; we're talking about a bona fide moderate exposure, with continuous moderate levels of smoke, not just drifting, but being immersed in the plume for 30 minutes."

Global Tobacco added that its health claim was further justified, because a published study had concluded that the effects of smoking on endothelial function in smokers were about equal to the effects among nonsmokers after 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke. "The evidence clearly demonstrated that endothelial dysfunction among heavy smokers is no worse than among nonsmokers who are exposed transiently to secondhand smoke. And besides," added the Global Tobacco spokesperson, "there were two newspaper articles that said this."

Citizens for Truth countered by pointing out that the study cited by Global Tobacco only measured endothelial dysfunction in coronary arteries, not fatal heart attack risk: "Endothelial dysfunction is simply a measure of the very early stages of atherosclerosis. You're not going to tell us that you can go from clean coronary arteries to occluded coronary arteries in 30 minutes in a nonsmoker, when even in heavy smokers, it takes many years to develop coronary stenosis. If what Global Tobacco is saying were true, we would be seeing fatal heart attacks among lots of 18 year-olds. After all, they have smoked for a whole lot more than 30 minutes if they started at age 16."

A prominent cardiologist supported the Citizens for Truth position: "Atherosclerosis is a gradual process. It doesn't happen in 30 minutes."

A Citizens for Truth press release called it "particularly despicable" that Global Tobacco would undermine public health education efforts about the serious cardiovascular health effects of smoking: "This is the 21st century. We thought that tobacco company deception about the health effects of smoking was a thing of the past. But Global Tobacco's health claim completely undermines more than 40 years of public health efforts to ensure that the public understands the serious heart attack risk associated with smoking. To suggest that this risk is no more than being exposed to 30 minutes of secondhand smoke -- it's hard to believe that could happen in 2006."

Citizens for Truth said it is considering filing a post-trial amicus brief in the Department of Justice tobacco lawsuit, since this recent action by Global Tobacco "substantially strengthens the government's contention that RICO violations are continuing, not just a thing of the past."

Nevertheless, Global Tobacco did not seem overly concerned: "We're not worried. If this goes to court, we feel quite confident that any reasonable judge will agree that we are merely repeating the message sent by an anti-smoking organization, which, by definition, must be true. And even if it's not, why should we be held to a different standard than anyone else? Shouldn't there be a level playing field for scientific accuracy?"

(Thanks to Walt Hanley for the news tip).

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