The Sunday Edition

Michael's Essay: Exploding the myth that second-hand smoke causes cancer

There are a number of 50th anniversaries to mark in 2014. Some are good, like the Beatles coming to the United States. Some unfortunate, like the first appearance of the Bossa Nova. But in terms of overall impact on the health and well being of people, we should note that this is the 50th Anniversary of the special report on...
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There are a number of 50th anniversaries to mark in 2014. Some are good, like the Beatles coming to the United States. Some unfortunate, like the first appearance of the Bossa Nova. But in terms of overall impact on the health and well being of people, we should note that this is the 50th Anniversary of the special report on smoking by the Surgeon General of the United States.

It is hard to overestimate the value of the report by Dr. Luther Terry. He established for the first time, the clear linkage between smoking and lung cancer. And he did much more. Dr. Terry showed that smoking was a serious contributing factor in cardiovascular disease and emphysema.

The tobacco companies, of course, went ballistic and spent and are still spending billions to fight the essential wisdom of the Terry report.

It has been estimated that something more than eight million lives have been saved since the surgeon general's report. Yet still, more than 400,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related causes.

In the decades since the report, municipalities around the world have passed a series of sensible laws restricting where people could not smoke; bars, restaurants, offices and on airplanes. It was about this time that well-intentioned people got carried away and began to proclaim the myth that second-hand or passive smoke caused cancer. It didn't make sense. How could a few wisps of smoke not inhaled deeply cause lung cancer?

On the program As It Happens, I put these and other questions to a researcher for the Environmental Protection Agency. After some heated back and forth, he admitted:"Sure it's crappy science, but look at the outcome--a smoke-free America."

Anti-smoking activists were quick to pronounce that "Second Hand Smoke Kills." Well, no, it doesn't, actually. A recent article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute described the details of a study involving 76,000 women over a period of more than 10 years. The bottom-line conclusion: the study found no statistically significant causal relationship between lung cancer and exposure to passive smoke. The study did not explore if passive smoke exacerbates other lung conditions such as asthma and emphysema, which it probably does. It focussed solely on the question of whether or not passive smoke causes lung cancer.

Say the study's authors: "To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine both active and passive smoking in relation to lung cancer incidence." Now as an ex-smoker and someone who lost his oldest friend to smoke-caused emphysema, I realize how awful smoking is. But then I have to ask why anti-smoking activists don't simply stick to the facts instead of alarming everybody with the assertion that passive smoke causes lung cancer when it clearly doesn't.

The answer lies not in science but in culture. This was the thinking of study researcher Dr. Jyoti Patel of Northwestern University School of Medicine who wrote: "The strongest reason to avoid passive cigarette smoke is to change societal behaviour; to not live in a society where smoking is the norm."

Well, bravo. An admirable objective. But that is social engineering, not medicine.

Added on January 22, 2014 - an update from Michael Enright

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