Thursday, June 26, 2008

Health Canada Toolkit Encourages Kids to Create Their Own Smoking-Related Research Facts; However, the Example Given to Guide them is Untruthful

Health Canada has produced a "Smokefree Spaces" activist toolkit to encourage school children in Canada to advocate for smoke-free places in their communities. One of the recommended activities is for the children to produce secondhand smoke-related "research facts" to educate the members of their community.

Health Canada provides the following as an example of a research "fact" that should be used: "A non-smoker in a smoky room, such as a bar, inhales the equivalent of 35 cigarettes an hour."

The Rest of the Story

It is far from a "fact" that nonsmokers in a smoky bar inhale the equivalent of 35 cigarettes an hour. In fact, it is false.

In terms of nicotine exposure, a nonsmoker in a smoky bar inhales the equivalent of less than one-thirtieth of a single cigarette in an hour. So clearly, you cannot accurately claim that a nonsmoker in such a situation inhales the equivalent of 35 cigarettes an hour. You are in fact in error - and by a whopping factor of about 1000. You're off by three orders of magnitude!

It is true that in terms of some smoke constituents - notably NDMA - which is much more concentrated in secondhand smoke than mainstream smoke, nonsmokers in a smoky bar may inhale the equivalent of about 2 cigarettes an hour. But even for NDMA, this "fact" is off by a factor of about 17.

I have no clue where the 35 cigarettes per hour figure comes from, but it is undoubtedly inaccurate. Even if one excludes from consideration all other constituents than NDMA - which is highly misleading - this statement is not accurate. But since the statement refers to overall exposure and not a particular constituent (it doesn't mention any particular constituent), it doesn't even come within a factor of 17 of being correct.

It is just inaccurate to assert that being exposed to tobacco smoke in a smoky bar for an hour is equivalent in terms of exposure to actively smoking 35 cigarettes.

And it is also irresponsible. This undermines the hazards of active smoking. Do we really want smokers to believe that smoking close to 2 packs of cigarettes per day is no worse than sitting in a smoky bar for an hour (and not smoking)?

So this "research fact" turns out not only to be false, but also to send a message that undermines decades of education about the severe hazards of smoking. If the children of Canada actually follow Health Canada's advice and disseminate this message, it may well undermine the government's important health message about the severe hazards of active smoking.

After all, if I were an active smoker of about 2 packs per day and I found out that my smoking was no worse than being a nonsmoker in a bar for an hour a day, I would conclude that the health effects of smoking are not as bad as they were made out to be.

This message, then, could actually inhibit efforts to promote smoking cessation.

I don't understand why Health Canada needs to use a false piece of information as an example to children. Are they trying to encourage students to exaggerate and distort the facts as anti-smoking groups are known to do? Are they honestly not aware that sitting in a bar for an hour is not the same thing as actively smoking 2 packs of cigarettes per day? Do they sincerely believe that the exposure in these two situations is identical? Or have they just been sloppy and not really thought about it?

I don't know the answer, but the question is quite clear: why is Health Canada providing a piece of false information to children and encouraging them to disseminate this information?

Incidentally, I am in a decent position to criticize this statement, since I myself have made statements about the cigarette equivalents of secondhand smoke exposure. However, in doing so, I have always been careful to specify exactly what constituent I was talking about. For example, if data shows that working in a smoky bar for 8 hours produces the same NDMA exposure as actively smoking one pack of cigarettes, then I have made it clear that NDMA exposure is what I am talking about. I have never suggested that secondhand smoke exposure for eight hours in a smoky bar is equivalent in terms of exposure to actively smoking a pack of cigarettes.

For a more detailed discussion of the dangers of using cigarette equivalents and the misleading health claims by numerous other health and anti-smoking groups, see my previous post.

(Thanks to Ann W. for the tip).

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