Friday, March 10, 2006

Anti-Smoking Group Uses False Information to Support New Hampshire Smoking Ban

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) - a Washington, D.C.-based anti-smoking group - has sent a message to each member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives supporting a bill, under consideration now, that would ban smoking in restaurants. The communication sent to each House member indicated that breathing secondhand smoke for even brief periods can be deadly to people who don't have asthma and that breathing secondhand smoke for as little as 30 minutes raises the risk of a fatal heart attack in a nonsmoker to the same level as in a smoker.

A major justification in support of a smoking ban that ASH provides is the following scientific claim about the health effects of secondhand smoke:

"Even for some people without respiratory conditions, breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly. For example, the Centers for Disease Controls [CDC] has warned that breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes can raise a nonsmokers risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker."

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that ASH's claims (both of them) are false and there is absolutely no documentation that supports either claim.

There is simply no solid evidence that breathing secondhand smoke for brief periods can be deadly to nonsmokers. The only exception to this would be severe asthmatics, for whom a brief exposure could trigger an asthmatic attack, which could potentially be fatal. But this claim excludes asthmatics. What it is clearly referring to is death from a fatal heart attack. But there is no credible evidence that I have seen that is sufficient to document a claim that a person is at risk of a heart attack from breathing secondhand smoke briefly.

The second claim is completely fallacious. It is simply not true that breathing in drifting tobacco smoke for 30 minutes raises the risk of a fatal heart attack in a nonsmoker to the same level as in a smoker. And there is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim.

Moreover, I can find not a shred of evidence that CDC made any such claim. What CDC said was that 30 minutes of exposure could cause endothelial dysfunction equivalent to that seen in a smoker. But nowhere did CDC state that 30 minutes of exposure could raise the fatal heart attack risk to that of a smoker.

In fact, you cannot get a heart attack from breathing in secondhand smoke for just 30 minutes if you are otherwise healthy. It just can't happen. You cannot develop atherosclerosis in 30 minutes!

I'm not going to repeat the reasons why these claims are fallacious here. Interested readers can find my attempts at a detailed explanation elsewhere (post#1; post#2; post #3; post #4; post#5).

Suffice it to say that for the first claim, there is simply not sufficient evidence to support it.

And the second claim is simply a bunch of crap.

Now let me make it clear that I am arguing that these claims are fallacious and false. I'm not arguing that ASH is lying. In other words, it is possible that ASH actually believes the crap they are stating. I'm not claiming they are deliberately trying to deceive people. It is quite possible that they actually believe the ridiculous, implausible, and impossible claim that they are making. Although if that's true, you would think it would help them to get some sort of physician or scientist on board as quickly as possible to help prevent them from spreading such false information.

Regardless of the reasons or intentions, the bottom line is that a prominent anti-smoking group is spreading complete misinformation in an attempt to promote a public policy. And I find that wrong and irresponsible. And I think it severely harms the credibility of the entire anti-smoking movement.

For the movement to save itself and preserve any semblance of scientific integrity and credibility, I think anti-smoking groups and advocates need to clearly and publicly reject ASH's misinformation, and explain to the public that these claims are untrue and do not represent the thinking of the entire movement, but simply of one fanatical organization that is going far beyond the realm of science to support its agenda.

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