Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Anti-Smoking Group Quoted as Saying that Secondhand Smoke is as Hazardous as Smoking

In an article on the Channel 6 - Knoxville (WATE) television station's web site, the American Cancer Society was quoted as stating that secondhand smoke exposure is as hazardous as active smoking and implying that the lung cancer risk among passive smokers is the same as it is among active smokers.

Here's the quote from the American Cancer Society spokesperson, who was lamenting the lack of tobacco settlement funds being allocated to smoking prevention: "We're basically passing on to the next generation the habit of smoking. We know that smoking causes lung cancer, that for non-smokers the risk from second hand smoke is just as big. So lives are still at stake and right now we're not doing a whole lot about it."

The Rest of the Story

The junk science claims are just getting worse and worse. Now, we are being quoted as claiming that secondhand smoke poses the same lung cancer risk as active smoking.

Before commenting on the implications of this story, let me first explain why the health claim attributed to the American Cancer Society is fallacious.

The relative risk for lung cancer associated with active smoking is about 17. This means that smokers are about 17 times more likely to develop lung cancer as nonsmokers.

The relative risk for lung cancer associated with secondhand smoke is about 1.3. This means that passive smokers are about 1.3 times more likely to develop lung cancer as non-exposed nonsmokers.

This means that the risk of lung cancer from secondhand smoke is 17/1.3, or 13 times lower in nonsmokers than in active smokers.

So it is not accurate to say that we know smoking causes lung cancer and that the risk from secondhand smoke is just as big. The truth is that the risk is about 13 times less.

Now I understand that it is possible that the reporter got the quote wrong. It wouldn't be the first time that happened. So I'm not necessarily casting blame on the American Cancer Society or its spokesperson here. But the point of this post is simply that the resulting communication to the public was inaccurate. And it was attributed to the Cancer Society. And something must have gone wrong in the interview to result in this misunderstanding by the reporter (even if it was a misunderstanding rather than an accurate representation of the actual quote).

The point is that the end result - regardless of whether it was the fault of the Cancer Society or of the reporter - is yet another false and misleading public claim that is being communicated to the public on behalf of the anti-smoking movement.

And there are really three things at stake here.

First is the credibility of the anti-smoking movement. The junk science claims are becoming so rampant and so ridiculous that we are seriously risking all of our credibility. Much of what we say about the hazards of secondhand smoke is truthful, but if we are inaccurate about some of our claims, what is to stop the public from simply dismissing all of our claims?

Second is the integrity of our movement and the value of truth and scientific accuracy. Regardless of whether these false statements have any negative repercussions or not, it is wrong simply because scientific accuracy, truthfulness, and transparency are three very important ethical values that should form the basis for our actions as public health and tobacco control practitioners.

Third is the undermining of the public's knowledge of the health hazards associated with active smoking. What the American Cancer Society is actually being quoted as saying here is that active smoking is no worse than secondhand smoke exposure. And since people (accurately) understand that the risks of secondhand smoke are much lower than those of smoking, such a false belief would lead people to drastically underestimate the true effects of active smoking.

I view this statement attributed to an anti-smoking group as a very damaging one, because it is going to undermine the public's understanding of the serious health hazards associated with smoking. In fact, since there are many who don't really think that secondhand smoke is particularly dangerous, the ACS-attributed quote could mislead these members of the public into thinking that active smoking is also not particularly dangerous. I doubt that will happen because the dangers of smoking are widely known; however, this type of media coverage could easily be expected to undermine the public's appreciation of the degree of danger of active smoking.

The rest of the story is that yet another fallacious, junk science health claim attributed to an anti-smoking group is being spread to the public. The communication of these untruthful claims is threatening the credibility of our movement, violating basic ethical principles of public health conduct, and undermining the public's appreciation of the hazards of smoking.

But worse, no group (within the movement) seems to care. If we save just one life, what does it matter if we are lying to the public?

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