Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Distinction Between War Against Cigarette Smoke and War Against Cigarette Smokers Continues to Blur; Researcher Warns Public Not to Be Around Smokers

An anti-smoking researcher has warned the public not to be around cigarette smokers, according to a press release issued by the University of Cincinnati.

The press release is related to a new research study which reports that a particular genetic trait may predispose certain individuals to higher risks of lung cancer, even if they are exposed to lower doses of tobacco smoke than are typically associated with high risk for lung cancer.

According to the press release: "For family members without this genetic lung cancer risk, the risk of developing the disease tracked closely with the level of smoking—in other words, heavy smokers had a significantly greater risk of developing lung cancer than moderate smokers, who had a significantly greater risk than light smokers. But in family members with the genetic risk haplotype, even light smoking resulted in a greatly increased risk for developing lung cancer. From there, increasing smoking behaviors in this group of family members carried only weakly increasing risk for developing lung cancer. "If you carried the inherited risk and then you smoked, it didn’t matter if you were a light smoker or a heavy smoker—you were significantly more likely to develop lung cancer,” Pinney says. Adds Anderson: "If you have a family history of lung cancer, you probably should not even be around cigarette smokers.”

"Marshall Anderson, PhD, a professor in UC’s cancer and cell biology department, is principal investigator of the GELCC [Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium], whose UC portion is known as the Family Lung Cancer Study. Susan Pinney, PhD, an associate professor in the department of environmental health, is a co-investigator."

The Rest of the Story

The interesting aspect of this story is that the researcher did not warn the public to avoid being around cigarette smoke, or to avoid being around cigarette smokers when they are smoking. Instead, the advice was simply to avoid being around smokers, period.

Now one might argue that this was simply a word slip and that the researcher's intended statement was to avoid exposure to smoke. However, the fact that she had plenty of time to review her statement in this press release suggests that at least some thought went into the language she used. If not intentional, it was at least a Freudian slip that her advice was to stay away from smokers.

This might be a matter of semantics, except for the fact that it seems symbolic of a growing trend in the tobacco control movement, whereby the distinction between a battle against cigarette smoke and one against cigarette smokers is becoming increasingly blurred. Anti-smoking groups, for example, are now supporting not only smoke-free workplaces, but also smoker-free workplaces. Such policies are obviously not designed to protect nonsmokers from cigarette smoke, but from cigarette smokers. The same is true of policies banning smoking completely on college campuses and in remote outdoor locations.

Do we really want to turn smokers into social outcasts? Do we really want to advise people not to associate at all with anyone who smokes (even when they are not smoking)?

In previous times, I would have said: "Absolutely not. Our goal is simply to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke." Today, I'm not so sure. In fact, that's not true. I am sure. I am sure that many in the anti-smoking community have exactly that as a goal: the punishment, social isolation, and ostracization of smokers.

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