According to a number of anti-smoking and health groups, there is one thing that is as bad for your health as smoking - and that's breathing in secondhand smoke. The problem is that in comparing these health risks, these groups are claiming that secondhand smoke and active smoking are equally hazardous. They're not stating that secondhand smoke is dangerous, although not as bad as active smoking. They're telling the public that these hazards are nearly equivalent.
Here are the fallacious claims:
Baltimore Health Department, Tobacco Use Prevention and Smoking Cessation Program: "Second-hand smoke can be as harmful as smoking."
SmokeFree Australia: "New report warns passive smoke almost as harmful as smoking."
Louisiana Public Health Institute: "Comparing the effects of active smoking and secondhand smoke, researchers found that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke is about 80% as harmful as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day."
Hong Kong Tobacco Control Office: "Is secondhand smoke less harmful than active smoke? No!!"
Asante Health System: "Secondhand, or passive, smoking is almost as harmful as firsthand, active smoking."
University of Ottawa Health Services: "True or False, second hand smoke is not as bad than smoking? False. Second-hand smoke has up to 4000 chemicals in it; non-smokers are more susceptible to heart and vascular damage than smokers are, even though they absorb much smaller doses of the smoke toxins."
Fertilitext.org (cached - not active link): "Smoking can have a negative impact on both male and female fertility. It is important to note that exposure to second hand smoke can be just as harmful as smoking itself."
Women's Health (cached - not active link): "Just breathing in the smoke from a smoker is almost as harmful as smoking the cigarette."
The Rest of the Story
These claims are absolutely false.
Active smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by about 17 times. Secondhand smoke increases lung cancer risk by about 30% (a factor of 1.3).
Active smoking increases the risk of heart disease by 2-3 times. Secondhand smoke increases heart disease risk by about 30% (a factor of 1.3).
Active smoking causes thousands of deaths from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) each year. Secondhand smoke does not cause COPD.
Active smoking increases the risk of oral, esophageal, laryngeal, stomach, bladder, cervical, and kidney cancer. Secondhand smoke does none of these things.
Active smoking causes an estimated 430,000 deaths each year. Secondhand smoke is estimated to cause about 43,000. That's ten times fewer. Yet many more people are exposed to secondhand smoke then to active smoking.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that secondhand smoke isn't harmful. I've spent the better part of the past 21 years trying to convince the public of the hazards of secondhand smoke.
But I think we can try to convince the public of this fact using the actual science. I think we can communicate the message effectively by passing along the truth. I don't think we need to disseminate false information to do our job as public health professionals. Doing so only destroys our credibility and makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to get our message across.
Moreover, by lying about the severity of the health effects of secondhand smoke exposure, I think we are undermining the public's appreciation of the hazards of active smoking. Because what we're really telling the public is:
"Active smoking is no worse than breathing in secondhand smoke."
And that's a stupid message to be communicating to the public, is it not? Do we really want people to think that the hazards of smoking are no worse than secondhand smoke? I should hope not. Given that many people do not perceive secondhand smoke to be much of a hazard, I would hope that the public not perceive active smoking to pose the same risk level as being exposed to secondhand smoke.
Why is there this need in the anti-smoking movement to sensationalize the science by distorting it to the point of blatant inaccuracy?
Why isn't simply telling the truth good enough?
Or have we been criticizing the tobacco companies for their falsehoods so incessantly that we have now adopted their own tactics to fight them?