Monday, November 10, 2008

SHS - subtle deception by Health Canada

Does secondhand smoke cause lung cancer and heart disease? When a government health agency states definitively that secondhand smoke is the cause of death associated with these diseases, are they being honest with the public they have been mandated to serve? Who should be held accountable when inaccurate, deceptive or misleading information is presented to the public by such an agency?

For example, Health Canada, on its website, claims that: “More than 1,000 non-smokers will die this year in Canada due to tobacco use -- over 300 lung cancer deaths and at least 700 deaths from coronary heart disease will be caused by second-hand smoke.”

This is, in fact, an inaccurate claim. Who says so? Why Health Canada.

In the latest report from Health Canada, it states there are 252 lung cancer deaths and 579 deaths from ischemic heart disease (IHD) allegedly due to secondhand smoke. Now, when I went to school (many, many years ago), 831 was not “more than 1,000”, 252 was not “over 300” and 579 was not “at least 700”.

So why is Health Canada still circulating numbers that are not borne out by the facts; their facts?

While this discrepancy may seem like a trivial affair, it’s not. The numbers on the Health Canada website were supposedly updated at the same time the report, prepared for Health Canada, was released. So they had access to the correct data. And, at any rate, they’ve had over a year to correct any inaccuracies, since the report was released around November 7, 2007.

In fact, few of their web pages have been updated to reflect the new data.

And consider this. Health Canada is claiming that over 1,000 deaths are “caused” by secondhand smoke. At what level of occurrence would you feel comfortable saying that secondhand smoke "causes" death from lung cancer or heart disease among non-smokers? If 10 million non-smokers are exposed to secondhand smoke and 5 million (50%) were to die, you might be able to make a case that that their death was due to second-hand smoke.

But 1,000 deaths out of 10 million SHS exposed non-smokers equals 1/100 of 1% (0.01%). How can Health Canada unequivocally declare that secondhand smoke “caused” the deaths of these 1,000 people? To how much SHS were these individuals exposed? In what measurable concentrations? For what specific length of time; twenty years? Thirty years? Sixty years? Does Health Canada have the answers; any answers?

And, think about this, logically and unemotionally.

For only one per cent of 10 million non-smokers to die due to lung cancer or heart disease, as a result of exposure to SHS, will take over 100 years. That means that 9.9 million out of 10 million exposed to secondhand smoke will not die from their exposure. And if, as they claim, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, how is that even remotely possible?

To argue that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, when 99% of an exposed population will escape death over a hundred year time frame, is illogical at best. In fact, it’s fear mongering, plain and simple.

In their most recent report on smoking mortality Health Canada reacted to criticism that previous estimates of smoking related deaths, which were based on the direct application of a US survey to the Canadian population, was inappropriate. So, they made a few adjustments to data, and voila 10,000 fewer deaths from smoking; retroactively.

So, part of the problem may be the reliance on information provided by sources in the US, including some highly controversial information from the EPA and the US Surgeon-General.

For example, Health Canada states that: “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has officially labeled second -hand smoke as a "class A" cancer-causing substance. Class “A” is considered the most dangerous of cancer agents and there is no known safe level of exposure.”

The first point to be made is that, as noted previously, there is clearly a safe level of exposure if more than 99% of those exposed to SHS are expected to die of something other than exposure to SHS over the next 100 years.

The second point is that the source of the claim that secondhand smoke is a class “A” carcinogen is a discredited report from the US EPA. A judge labeled the report an outright “fraud” and it was the subject of at least one US congressional committee investigation which called into question the conclusions of the report.

Health Canada must be aware that the EPA report remains highly controversial. Still, they used data and conclusions from that report which tends to mislead the Canadian public.

Health Canada has a duty to provide the public with accurate and timely information. It should not allow itself to be used as the propaganda arm for anti-smoker groups with their own agenda. And, governments which rely on propaganda to support public policy, no matter how well-intentioned, are not to be trusted. It’s a not so subtle imposition of their personal biases on the Canadian people.

And, it’s unacceptable.

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