Sunday, July 13, 2008

Did heart attacks decline in England?

Many years ago (OK, it was several decades actually), I attended a training course for an accounting program I was taking at the time. One day-long session appeared to be something of a time waster and I recall thinking, along with several of my colleagues, that maybe our instructor was simply trying to give us a brief respite from the relative banality of accounting procedure.

He was, in fact, doing nothing of the kind. Instead, he was providing a valuable lesson in how easily numbers could be manipulated and how effortlessly people could be deceived by the way in which the numbers were presented. The session involved a series of simple logic questions. One of those questions is probably well known by many; but I’ll use it here to make my point.

Three men from the same company walk into a hotel. Each of the men rents a room for the night at $10.00 per night, for a total of $30.00. After the bell hop has taken each of the men to their rooms, the manager realizes that he has over-charged the men since there’s a special corporate group rate of only $25.00 per night for three rooms. He gives the bell hop five dollars with instructions to return it to the three men.

The bellhop, seizing the opportunity for personal gain, returns one dollar to each man and puts the two remaining dollars in his own pocket.

The question, as posed by the instructor, was, since the three men had paid $9.00 each for the room (a total of $27.00) and the bell hop had put $2.00 in his own pocket bringing the total to $29.00, what happened to the other dollar?

It was several minutes before someone tripped to the deception and said: “Hey, wait a minute, that’s a misleading question. You misrepresented the facts”.

I was reminded of that training class while reading newspaper accounts of the effects of England’s year old smoking ban on hospital admissions for heart attacks in that country. People are still playing games with numbers and people are still being deceived.

The Sunday Times (June 15, 2008) proclaimed: “Heart attack admissions fall by up to 40% since smoking ban”, The TelegraphCo.UK trumpeted: “Fall in heart attack numbers after smoking ban” and finally, the MailOnLine, where the story originated, ran the headline: “Smoking ban cuts the number of heart attacks by more than 40 per cent at some hospitals”

On reading the fine print, however, there was no 40% decline in heart attacks. Although there were 1,384 fewer heart attacks in the nine months following the ban than in the nine months prior to the ban, it represented only a 3% decrease in heart attack admissions. The headlines were deliberately manipulated to deceive the public into believing that the ban was having a more significant impact on people’s health than was actually the case.

But, the headlines were not the only deceptive practice used in the MailOnline article written by Rebecca Camber. The article was accompanied by a photo (shown above) of two smiling young women smoking in a comfortable outdoor patio on a bright, sunny summer’s day. The caption on the photo noted that: “90 per cent of pubs, clubs and restaurants have complied with the ban with many installing special areas outside for smokers”

The impression left in the reader’s mind was that the smoking bans were only a minor inconvenience to smokers who could still sit in a comfortable environment while imbibing their favourite beverage and enjoying a smoke.

Once again, the numbers (and, in this case, the photograph) were used in a manner designed to deceive. The claim that 90% of pubs and clubs were in compliance immediately preceded the statement, “with many installing special areas for smokers”. The casual reader was inclined to associate the undefined “many” with the 90% and thus leave the notion that few smokers were experiencing any inconvenience due to the ban. The photo reinforced that subliminal message.

However, if the photo had been of three smokers in a back alley, huddled under a single umbrella on a rainy winter’s night, the reader might have been left with an entirely different impression; one more indicative of the manner in which smokers have been treated since the bans in the UK (and around the world) took effect.

Deceptions of this nature may be legitimate in a learning environment or to hawk useless gadgets and gizmos on the Shopping Channel. But, they are unacceptable in the debate over the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke or to justify smoking bans implemented, presumably, to protect public health.

The British Cardiovascular Society, British Heart Foundation and the Department of Health greeted the “good news” with great praise; once respected organizations, ready to risk their credibility to support the propaganda of the fanatics in the anti-smoker brigade.

The campaign to demonize smokers has been built on a foundation of this kind of deceit, shoddy science and misleading statistics. The severe socio-economic impact of smoking bans has been lost in a propaganda campaign which now rivals that used by Nazi Germany in 1930 through the end of World War II. Legitimate public health organizations, politicians and the press have willingly signed onto this program of deception.

Forty-five years ago, an instructor used a simple parlour room trick to dispatch his students on a search for a dollar that didn’t exist. The anti-smoker fanatics are using similar deceptions to encourage a gullible public to believe in a public health hazard which hasn’t been shown to exist.

When it comes to distorted statistics and twisted logic, some people are still ready to buy into the same old bullshit and bafflegab.

1 comment:

Michael J. McFadden said...

Rambler, your examples are beautiful! REALLY well done! :) Heh... I've always had problems with that bellhop tale. I have to re-figure it out each time I hear it.

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"