Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Article in Skeptic Magazine Highlights Absurd Claims of Anti-Smoking Groups

In an article in the current issue of Skeptic magazine, Sidney Zion highlights the absurd claims that anti-smoking groups are making about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke (see: Zion S. Science and Secondhand Smoke: The Need for a Good Puff of Skepticism. Skeptic 2007; 13[3]:20-27). In doing so, Zion draws heavily upon his interview with me.

He writes: "Dr. Michael Siegel was ex-communicated in late February 2006. A momentous event in the annals of anti-smoking militancy, for Siegel was a pioneer in the long fight to bar smoking in restaurants. He's a physician and a professor in Boston University's School of Public Health. If the Movement had a College of Cardinals, he'd have been among the first to wear the red hat. These credentials availed him nothing, for he committed the Mortal Sin of Criticism against the Infallible ASH and its pontiff, John Banzhaf."

"What brought Siegel to the apostasy was his revulsion at ASH's "fanatical" positions: that outdoor smoking should be banned, that companies should fire all smokers, that cities that permitted outdoor smoking would likely be sued by nonsmokers who keeled over from heart attacks, and for boasting that they were going to break the final frontier, by banning smoking in private homes."

"The means to these ends was ASH's claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke could cause fatal heart attacks in otherwise healthy nonsmokers. "In science and medicine," Siegel wrote in his blog, "we have a technical term that can be used to describe such a contention: a bunch of crap."

"Since ASH was promoting this line in the context of outdoor smoking, I asked Siegel if he thought they were right about half-hour heart attacks from indoor smoking. 'Of course not,' he said. 'As for outdoor smoking, I've never seen a credible study that [it] has ever killed anybody in any amount of time. If 30 minutes can cause fatal heart attacks, we'd have noticed it. People would be dying like flies.'"

In a piece that provides somewhat of a counter-point (in terms of the effects of chronic exposure to secondhand smoke), Dr. Harriet Hall, a physician who has no connection to the anti-smoking movement (at least not that I am aware of) expresses her agreement that the anti-smoking movement is seriously overstating its case. This is an important development, because it gives some indication of what a "neutral" physician believes and how she views this debate (see: Hall H. Clearing the Air: What Does Science Really Say About Secondhand Smoke? Skeptic 2007; 13[3]:28-31).

Dr. Hall writes: "Sidney Zion is right about one thing: anti-smoking activists have overstated the evidence against secondhand smoke. ... Hysterical anti-smoking activists have gone overboard, using this uncertainty [about whether there is a threshold below which secondhand smoke is absolutely innocuous] alone to support their demands for total bans. ... Common sense tells us that a low level of exposure is innocuous enough for practical purposes. Common sense tells us that judges should not be taking children away from parents just because the parents smoke."

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