An op-ed column published Tuesday in the Washington Post challenges what it calls the "bogus" science behind claims of the extreme dangers of secondhand smoke.
The column, written by Dr. Gio Gori, a former deputy director of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention and former paid tobacco industry consultant, opens by taking issue with two of the Surgeon General's claims:
First, that "breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time can damage cells and set the cancer process in motion," and second, that children exposed to secondhand smoke will "eventually . . . develop cardiovascular disease and cancers over time."
Dr. Gori goes on to question all of the science behind the health effects of secondhand smoke.
He concludes by emphasizing that public policy should be based on sound science and that the use of deception to try to advance policies is inappropriate.
"It has been fashionable to ignore the weakness of "the science" on secondhand smoke, perhaps in the belief that claiming "the science is settled" will lead to policies and public attitudes that will reduce the prevalence of smoking. But such a Faustian bargain is an ominous precedent in public health and political ethics." ...
"By any sensible account, the anachronism of tobacco use should eventually vanish in an advancing civilization. Why must we promote this process under the tyranny of deception? Presumably, we are grown-up people, with a civilized sense of fair play, and dedicated to disciplined and rational discourse. We are fortunate enough to live in a free country that is respectful of individual choices and rights, including the right to honest public policies. Still, while much is voiced about the merits of forceful advocacy, not enough is said about the fundamental requisite of advancing public health with sustainable evidence, rather than by dangerous, wanton conjectures."
"A frank discussion is needed to restore straight thinking in the legitimate uses of "the science" of epidemiology - uses that go well beyond secondhand smoke issues. Today, health rights command high priority on many agendas, as they should. It is not admissible to presume that people expect those rights to be served less than truthfully."
The Rest of the Story
It is with great misfortune that I find myself in a position where I must agree with two of the basic premises of this column (obviously I don't agree with the suggestion that all claims of the hazards of secondhand smoke are fallacious).
First, I agree that many of the claims being publicly disseminated by anti-smoking groups, including the Surgeon General's office, are based on bogus science.
Second, I agree that pubic policy should be based on an honest and accurate representation of the science, that health rights should be served truthfully, and that a frank discussion (particularly within the tobacco control movement) is needed to restore straight thinking regarding the way in which "science" is being used or misused to promote public policy.
Dr. Gori is absolutely correct in suggesting that two of the major claims made by the Surgeon General regarding the effects of secondhand smoke are based on bogus science.
First, there is no evidence that merely a brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer. All of the evidence upon which the conclusion that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer is based involve subjects with chronic exposure to secondhand smoke, usually at very high levels and for many, many years. Most of these studies involve people who lived with smokers for many years, or who worked in a workplace where they were exposed daily to secondhand smoke for many years.
Simply put, there is no adequate basis to support the Surgeon General's statement that a brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer.
Second, it is inaccurate to state that children exposed to secondhand smoke will eventually develop heart disease or cancer. The overwhelming majority of them will, of course, not develop heart disease or cancer due to their secondhand smoke exposure.
As I noted previously, "by making secondhand smoke exposure sound so bad, such that even a tiny and brief exposure is hazardous and such that if you are exposed you are doomed to disease, aren't we taking away an incentive for people who cannot eliminate their exposure entirely to reduce it? Are we not taking away an incentive for smokers to quit smoking if they know that they will still hang out in the same smoky bars and be exposed to secondhand smoke? What's the point of their quitting smoking if the secondhand smoke in these bars is going to kill them anyway and there is no perceived benefit of reducing the level of their exposure?"
Public policy should be based on accurate and well-documented science, not based on mere conjecture. It should be based on the truth, not on deceptive propaganda.
Right now, there is a lot of deceptive propaganda that is being spewed forth by anti-smoking groups. It is not just isolated groups; there is a widespread effort to sensationalize the health effects of secondhand smoke and it pervades the movement, going all the way to the top - to the office of the Surgeon General.
Anti-smoking groups can't stop every columnist from questioning the basis for the claims that there is any danger to secondhand smoke at all. But they should, at a minimum, not give opponents of smoke-free policies like Dr. Gori red-hot ammunition by making claims that really are bogus. Dr. Gori has always criticized the science behind secondhand smoke, but by actually making absurd and bogus claims, the Surgeon General's office and anti-smoking groups have given him the opportunity to have a field day.
And that field day, on the pages of the highly-read and highly reputed Washington Post, comes at the expense of a blow to the credibility of the anti-smoking movement.
As well it should.