Friday, April 25, 2008

Ontario Health Ministry Tells Public that Secondhand Smoke Causes Cardiac Arrest Among Children

In a letter sent in response to a citizen's inquiry about the rationale behind Ontario's proposed ban on smoking in motor vehicles with children present (and presumably being sent to other citizens who write on the same topic), the Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion states that exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of cardiac arrest among children.

The letter states: "Clearly, medical science shows that children who breathe second-hand smoke are more likely to suffer Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, asthma, and cardiac arrest."

The Rest of the Story

Let's give the Ministry of Health Promotion a pass on its claim that children exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Perhaps they were using the term "children" very loosely. Obviously, SIDS is something that occurs to infants and not children. But we'll give the Ministry a pass on that one.

However, there is simply no way to justify or explain the statement that secondhand smoke causes cardiac arrest among exposed children. There is no degree of leniency on the terminology that we can allow that would enable us to interpret that statement as being anything other than blatantly inaccurate.

Children's hearts do not stop beating suddenly because of exposure to secondhand smoke. There is no evidence that secondhand smoke exposure causes acute coronary events of any kind among children. This claim seems to be pulled completely out of the blue. It's not like the claim is even an exaggeration of a claim for which there is evidence. In other words, this is not merely an exaggeration, it is a complete fabrication.

Even worse, the Ministry is claiming not merely that secondhand smoke causes cardiac arrest among children, but that medical science clearly shows that this is the case.

I do not understand why the Ministry of Health Promotion would fabricate such a claim.

First of all, why risk a deterioration of its public credibility? Once found to be fabricating its scientific statements on the health effects of secondhand smoke, would not the Ministry be concerned that its credibility regarding all other health issues be questioned? Is the public going to believe that the Ministry is fabricating medical claims only about one narrow part of a particular health issue, and that everything else it states is completely accurate?

Second of all, why is this fabrication even necessary? If the rationale for banning smoking in cars with children is that the exposure causes health effects, then why aren't the actual documented health effects of secondhand smoke (such as its effects on respiratory infections and asthma) enough? Why must health practitioners fabricate false health effects in order to support this proposed policy?

While I have spent a lot of time criticizing the tobacco companies for fabricating the lack of health effects from smoking and from secondhand smoke, I never thought I would be in a position of having to criticize a public health agency for fabricating the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. And unfortunately, the fact that the intent behind the fabrication is a good one (to protect children's health) does not justify making a false statement to the public. Not only does it undermine the credibility of the public health movement; it also represents a breach of public health's ethical code of conduct.

Once again, I wonder whether I will be one of just a few anti-smoking advocates to criticize the distortion of the science in order to promote tobacco control policy or whether many other anti-smoking advocates and groups will join me in criticizing this fabrication of the science.

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