Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Runner-Up for 2011 Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Award: Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights

Today I announce the 2nd place finisher in my annual Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Award for the worst public lie in the tobacco control field in 2011 (the Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Award name is borrowed from PolitiFact, which uses the term in its truth-o-meter). The winner will be announced later this week.

Second Place - 2011 Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Award: Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights

According to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) - a leading national smoke-free air advocacy group - active smoking is no worse than secondhand smoke exposure.

In a fact sheet entitled "Secondhand Smoke: The Science," the group claims that the health effects of secondhand smoke are virtually the same as those of active smoking. According to the fact sheet, "there are virtually no health disparities between active and passive smoking."

The fact sheet also states that active smoking only causes the same amount of heart damage as 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke.

The precise statements made by ANR are as follows:

1. "A June 2004 study published in the British Medical Journal reaffirmed that there are virtually no health disparities between active and passive smoking. The risks of heart disease associated with secondhand smoke are twice what were previously thought and are virtually indistinguishable from those associated with active smoking."

2. "Just thirty minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers."

The Rest of the Story

These false claims are damaging because they undermine decades of public education about the hazards of active smoking. They represent a lie that is every bit as false as anything the tobacco industry has fraudulently asserted in the historical annals of tobacco industry lies and deception.

The claims are particularly damaging because if believed by the public, they remove any incentive for smokers to quit. If smoking is only as bad as secondhand smoke exposure, then the hazards of active smoking are no where near as great as previously thought. Moreover, if smokers are going to be around people who smoke anyway, then there is no incentive for them to quit.

The health effects of active smoking are quite distinguishable from those of passive smoking. While passive smoking only increases the risk of lung cancer by a factor of about 1.3, active smoking increases lung cancer risk by a factor of about 17. That's more than an order of magnitude of difference in risk.

Similarly, the risk of COPD associated with active smoking is much greater than the risk associated with passive smoking.

While it is true that for heart disease, the risk associated with very heavy passive smoking approaches that associated with very light active smoking, it is simply not true to assert that the overall effects of secondhand smoke and active smoking are virtually indistinguishable and that "there are no health disparities between active and passive smoking."

Moreover, it is untrue that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke causes heart damage, much less the same degree of heart damage as observed in a chronic, active smoker. While it is true that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure causes endothelial dysfunction, this is not equivalent to "heart damage." Heart damage implies damage to the heart muscle, such as observed in a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. Thus, a mere 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure does not cause heart damage. Clearly, it is false to assert that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure causes "heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers."

The problem with these statements is not simply that they are untrue. They may be damaging to the public's appreciation of the hazards of active smoking. If the public believes that active smoking is only as dangerous as a mere 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure, then the public may believe that smoking is not as dangerous as they have been told. This is why this type of false propaganda can undermine years of public education about the hazards of smoking.

While the fact sheet was originally posted in 2006, it remains eligible for the 2011 Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Award because it remains on the web site today, unchanged. This is despite my conversation with staff at ANR, explaining why these claims are false.

While lying to the public would be bad enough, lying in a way that is likely to undermine the public's appreciation of the hazards of smoking is particularly egregious. That makes this lie deserving of recognition as the second place finisher in the Rest of the Story's 2011 Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Award competition.

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