Sunday, October 5, 2008

SHS, suspect science & a complacent press

Throughout history there have been periods where fear, born of ignorance, clouded the judgment of normally rational, tolerant men and women. And, more often than not on such occasions, there were individuals ready to exploit that fear, often with fanatical zeal, to further their own interests.

The McCarthy era back in the fifties is one example of a modern day witch hunt. An irrational fear of communism, fueled by political opportunists, led to the persecution of alleged communist sympathizers. The threat posed by those accused was often non-existent or greatly exaggerated; the evidence, at best, inconclusive or dubious

No one was burned at the stake. But, the lives of many were irrevocably changed as victims of the anti-communist crusade suffered loss of employment, destruction of their reputation, and even imprisonment.

Another example of a modern day witch hunt is the war on smokers.

Anti-smoker crusaders, by associating secondhand smoke with dread diseases such as lung cancer, have created a climate of fear using flimsy, inconclusive, and possibly manufactured, evidence. Their crusade has turned into a campaign to harass and persecute smokers. Many activists have used public health as a vehicle to enhance their personal power, prestige and financial well-being.

Science has been distorted to ridiculous levels, with more and more outlandish “scientific” studies being released on a regular basis. Two recent studies deserve special mention for their attempts to heighten the level of anxiety parents already feel for their children.

Dr. Krassi Rumchev is the author of a study published in the June issue of Indoor Air. The study concludes that even smoking outside the home poses a major health risk to children. Rumchev claims, “they (smokers) still breathed out smoke that contaminated the air enough to cause damage. They also brought particles inside on their body and clothes

Rumchev is telling the public that breathing on children after smoking a cigarette adversely affects their health.

But, Dr. Michael Siegel, an anti-smoking advocate at Boston University, believes the study is flawed. And, except in the most extreme situations, he doesn’t think smoker’s breath represents a health hazard to children. “No, I don't believe that it represents a serious health hazard to nonsmokers or to children.

Dr. Siegel noted on his blog: “the study in question actually provides no evidence that smoking outside the home is not adequate to protect children from substantial exposure to tobacco smoke inside the home.”

But, in their article reporting the study, the HeraldSun (Australia), claimed: “Smoking outside does not stop children being exposed to high levels of dangerous tobacco chemicals, research shows.”

Clearly, the article was intended to present the conclusions of the flawed study as fact.

In another article, published in The Calgary Herald, Jennifer O'Loughlin, a professor at the University of Montreal, is quoted as saying: “Increased exposure to second-hand smoke, both in cars and homes, was associated with an increased likelihood of children reporting nicotine dependence symptoms -- even though these kids had never put a cigarette in their mouths."

The basis of those claims was a study headed by O'Loughlin, an epidemiologist, in which they asked a group of 1488 kids aged between 10 and 12 years of age to fill out a questionnaire. The questions included “the number of persons who smoke inside the home, number of days exposed to SHS in a motor vehicle in the past week, number of parents, siblings, and friends who smoke, and ND (nicotine dependency) symptoms.”

According to the study, “Sixty-nine of 1488 never-smokers (5%) reported one or more ND symptoms.”

It goes on, “exposure to SHS in a motor vehicle was independently associated with ND symptoms (OR, 95% CI = 1.2, 1.0–1.4).

The conclusion reached by the study: “SHS exposure in motor vehicles may be associated with ND symptoms among young never-smokers. If replicated, this finding provides support for interventions that promote non-smoking in motor vehicles.”

But, even to the untrained eye, there are serious credibility problems with this study.

For instance, the relative risk (OR) is given as 1.2 with a confidence interval of 1.0 to 1.4 making the OR statistically insignificant since it includes the baseline (1). Secondly, the abstract makes no reference to a control group against which these numbers could be compared. It appears to be little more than a poll of 10 to 12 year olds.

But, most significantly, the study draws its conclusions, not on any evidence of actual nicotine dependence, but on observations by 10, 11 and 12 year olds as to whether they were experiencing symptoms. What symptoms? Depression, anxiety, trouble concentrating? Couldn’t these same symptoms be caused by any number of factors, such as dealing with schoolyard bullies or poor self-image?

But, it doesn't matter that these studies are seriously flawed; all that matters to the anti-smoker crusaders is that the public believe secondhand smoke is jeopardizing children’s health. For this, they have been able to rely on the power of the press to relay their message to the public. And, these studies are, almost without exception, reported in the press as unambiguous and incontrovertible, without a single dissenting voice.

The headline of the September 30 Calgary Herald article by Charlie Fidelman, for example, read: “Smoking parents can hook kids on nicotine,” despite the fact that “Researchers did not make a direct link between cause and effect.”

The press, by failing to publish any opposing point of view, has been derelict in their duty to inform the public. In fact, the press has become little more than a cheering section for anti-smoker fanatics in their attempts to de-normalize smokers.

The failure of the press to present balanced, unbiased coverage of these studies has contributed significantly to the fear and ignorance which drives this particular modern day witch hunt.

Anti-smoking activist Dr. Michael Siegel comments on the second of these studies on his blog, saying: “This is an example of biased and shoddy science. Unfortunately, this is what tobacco control research is gradually deteriorating into.”

1 comment:

Luc Dussart said...

I also posted a note today about faulty science. Unfortunately it's in french, but that could be of interest for some of you...