According to an article published yesterday in the Manitowoc Herald Times, a tobacco control researcher and vice chairman of the Montana Tobacco Advisory Board is publicly claiming that a short exposure to secondhand smoke can cause a heart attack and that such an acute exposure raises a nonsmoker's risk of a heart attack to that of a smoker.
The researcher, who is also the lead author of the now infamous Helena study (which concluded that the smoking ban in this Montana city resulted in a 40% decline in heart attack admissions in a six-month period), apparently told the Herald Times that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke is not necessary to cause heart disease. Instead of requiring years of exposure, as was previously thought, all that is needed is going "into a restaurant for a sandwich."
"'We used to think that heart disease came after years of exposure,' said Dr. Richard Sargent, board-certified in family practice with St. Peter's Community hospital in Helena, Mont. Then studies in the 1990s began pointing to heart attacks that were happening very rapidly from short-term exposure to second-hand smoke, Sargent said in a phone interview. 'If you go into a restaurant for a sandwich, if you go into a bar for a beer and you get exposed to a heavy amount of second-hand smoke, you're just as at risk for a heart attack as a smoker,' he said."
"Sargent, vice chairman of the Montana Tobacco Advisory Board, will speak to area health professionals about the subject later this month. He also will present a free educational community forum from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at the Manitowoc Senior Center. The forum is sponsored by the Manitowoc County Tobacco Control Coalition."
"Second-hand smoke has 'an acute, rapid effect on the heart,' Sargent said. 'Thirty minutes of exposure doubles your risk for the next 48 hours.'"
The Rest of the Story
Assuming that this news article is accurately reflecting the statements made by this researcher, I come to the following conclusion: the anti-smoking movement is quickly becoming a complete joke.
I'm sorry, but this is just getting ridiculous.
First it was ASH claiming that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases your risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker. Perhaps one could write that off because ASH has made other crazy statements and it's just a single anti-smoking group.
Then it was SmokeFreeOhio claiming that just 20 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases your risk of suffering a heart attack. Perhaps one could write that off because it is just a state anti-smoking group and isn't necessarily trying to disseminate its information nationally.
But now, the "heart attack while eating a sandwich in a smoky restaurant" claim appears to be going on tour. Anti-smoking groups are now inviting a respected tobacco control researcher to travel across the country to apparently tell the public that if you go into a bar for a beer, you might drop dead from a heart attack due to acute secondhand smoke exposure.
I have already attempted, on multiple occasions, to explain why these claims are completely fallacious (occasion 1; occasion 2; occasion 3; occasion 4; occasion 5; occasion 6; occasion 7; occasion 8).
Here I will focus my commentary on pointing out how damaging these claims are likely to be to smoking education efforts, and why I therefore view them as being quite irresponsible.
What the above scientific claim is suggesting is that the risk of a heart attack due to smoking is no higher than the risk of a heart attack during the 30 minutes that it takes to eat a sandwich in a smoky restaurant. Sound ridiculous? Of course it does. But this is precisely what the claim is stating.
If the risk of a heart attack from 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure is the same as the risk of a heart attack from active smoking, then is it not also true that the risk of a heart attack from active smoking is the same as the risk of a heart attack from 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke?
And if we go around telling the public this, then it is certainly going to undermine the public's appreciation of the severe hazards of smoking in terms of cardiovascular disease and heart attack risk. After all, if smokers think that their risk of suffering a heart attack is no more than that of a nonsmoker who has a drink in a smoky bar for 30 minutes, then they might as well keep smoking. Why quit? Their risk is going to be just as high, unless they stop going to the smoky bar.
I feel sorry for the seniors who are planning to go to this talk at the Manitowoc Senior Center on Thursday night. If these claims are made at that seminar, they are going to be seriously misled about the cardiovascular risks of smoking.
If there was any doubt about the invalidity of the Helena study, this story should put that doubt to rest. Because this story shows the kind of reasoning we are dealing with.
The "30 minutes doubles your risk for the next 48 hours" claim is somewhat difficult to evaluate because it's not clear what risk is being referred to; however, if it is referring to a heart attack, it is inaccurate.
The rest of the story is that, assuming the newspaper is accurately reporting the statements made, the fallacious 30-minute claim is now spreading in such a fashion that is basically becoming part of the anti-smoking movement's dogma.
It needs to be put to bed, but the only thing that can do that is if anti-smoking organizations and advocates publicly disassociate from it. And I doubt that's going to happen.
If it doesn't happen, the anti-smoking movement is at serious risk of becoming a joke.