Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More Anti-Smoking Groups Claiming that Secondhand Smoke is Worse than Active Smoking

Today, I reveal and discuss six more examples of anti-smoking groups claiming that secondhand smoke exposure is more dangerous than active smoking.

1. The headline of a March 2005 press release issued by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) reads: "Secondhand Tobacco Smoke More Dangerous Than Smoking Itself."

This press release, which is still available on the internet (and has not been corrected), goes on to say that the California Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that secondhand smoke causes breast cancer in premenopausal women and that the risk from secondhand smoke is actually higher than the risk of breast cancer from active smoking. This is apparently the "evidence" for the proclamation that secondhand smoke is more dangerous than smoking itself.

2. According to ActNowBC: "Second-hand smoke can be more dangerous than smoking. Smokers inhale their chemical cocktail through a filter; second-hand smokers aren’t so lucky."

3. According to the Canadian Health Network:
"Why is second-hand smoke more harmful than what smokers inhale? Second-hand smoke has twice as much nicotine and tar as the smoke that smokers inhale directly from their cigarettes."

4. In a medical news article on from last April, the director of ASH is quoted as saying: "I know that the secondhand smoke is different from, and in many ways more dangerous than directly inhaled smoke. It's the difference between a well-ventilated fire in a fireplace and one where there is not enough ventilation to produce proper oxygenation."

5. According to a youth anti-smoking group: "Studies have found that secondhand smoke is even more dangerous than inhaled smoke because it burns hotter."

6. According to the British Columbia Ministry of Health: "Breathing second-hand smoke can be more dangerous than inhaling smoke through a filtered cigarette. It has twice as much nicotine and tar as the smoke that a person smoking inhales and has five times more carbon monoxide, a deadly gas that starves your body of oxygen."

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that in their zeal to scare the public about the effects of secondhand smoke in order to promote smoking bans, anti-smoking groups have stretched and exaggerated the truth so much that they are now widely disseminating misleading and/or inaccurate information to the public.

Let's start with ASH's claim: "Secondhand Tobacco Smoke More Dangerous Than Smoking Itself."

This claim is simply false. Secondhand smoke is not more dangerous than active smoking. Active smoking is more dangerous than secondhand smoke exposure. A multitude of epidemiologic studies document this fact.

What ASH has done is to completely distort a scientific finding - that the relationship between the dose of secondhand smoke and the risk of breast cancer is not linear - and to twist it in such a way that it comes out stating that passive smoking is more dangerous than active smoking.

This is a gross distortion of the truth.

It would be interesting to know whether ASH actually believes this headline or not. If ASH recognizes that active smoking is more harmful than secondhand smoke, then it is lying in telling the public the opposite. On the other hand, if ASH does believe that active smoking is less hazardous than passive smoking, then I suggest that ASH has completely lost its scientific competence and credibility and has no business making any statements regarding the science of active or passive smoking to the public. And certainly, the public should not listen to anything that ASH has to say.

Perhaps there is a middle ground here, where what ASH is actually doing is making a statement that they know will be misleading to many people, but relying on a technical defense - that with respect to breast cancer, secondhand smoke may pose a greater risk than active smoking - to justify the statement. If that is the case, things are no better. In some ways they are worse. Because that would imply that ASH is intentionally distorting the scientific evidence - the truth - in order to make people believe something that isn't true.

This is exactly the kind of deception and distortion that we are constantly accusing the tobacco companies of doing.

So none of the options are good: either ASH is lying, completely incompetent, or no better than the tobacco companies in terms of deceiving the public. Not a pretty picture for one of the most prominent national anti-smoking organizations, and because of that, for the entire anti-smoking movement.

Some might ask the question: how can I say that the entire anti-smoking movement is tarnished by the actions of one group? First of all, it's clear that it is not just one group. But second of all, if no other anti-smoking group is willing to publicly state that what ASH has communicated in its headline is wrong, then we are all sort of accomplices to the deception and distortion, and I do think that it therefore reflects on the entire anti-smoking movement.

The claim made by ActNowBC is also extremely deceptive, although admittedly it is slightly less egregious than the claim made by ASH. "Second-hand smoke can be more dangerous than smoking" is not an accurate representation of the truth, I would submit. Active smoking is clearly and unequivocally worse than passive smoking, according to an overwhelming body of scientific literature. I would like to see ActNowBC's documentation of scientific evidence that secondhand smoke can be more dangerous than active smoking. My personal opinion is that this is not based on any scientific documentation, but is a gross distortion of the scientific truth.

The statements that secondhand smoke is more harmful or more dangerous than mainstream smoke are very misleading. These statements imply, I believe, that active smoking is therefore not as dangerous as passive smoking.

While it may be true that sidestream smoke contains higher concentrations of some constituents than mainstream smoke, it is not correct to imply that therefore, exposure to secondhand smoke is more dangerous than exposure to mainstream smoke. The reason is that while the smoker directly inhales the mainstream smoke, the nonsmoker inhales sidestream smoke that has been greatly diluted.

I suppose that if it were common practice for nonsmokers to go around and suck in on the smoke directly emanating from the burning cigarette tip of smokers around them, then it might be correct to state that secondhand smoke is more dangerous than mainstream smoke. But because nonsmokers invariably inhale smoke that has been greatly diluted (which is not the case for active smokers), this statement is thus very misleading.

The shame of all of this is that not only are anti-smoking groups making inaccurate and misleading statements to the public, but they are completely tarnishing the reputation and credibility of the movement. They are making us no better than the tobacco companies with respect to deceiving people about the truth. They are also undermining the public's appreciation of the hazards of active smoking. All in an effort to exaggerate the health effects of secondhand smoke, something which is completely unnecessary and uncalled for.

The tobacco companies are not the only ones who should be preparing corrective statements to disseminate to the public.

(Thanks to Mike Walsh for the tip.)

No comments: