Monday, May 17, 2010

Smoking myths examined - with a jaundiced eye

Usually when I surf the web, I do it with a purpose; looking for something specific. But sometimes I just follow links, never knowing where I'll end up or what I'll find along the way. Often, I'll come across something that's good for a laugh, if nothing else.

For example, a few days back I came across a strange, anti-smoker comment on the web. A woman was complaining that she could smell secondhand smoke from a vehicle passing her on the highway at 65 miles an hour and wondering why smokers couldn't have the courtesy to roll up their windows when smoking in their cars. That woman must have had one hell of a schnoz. Jimmy Durante would have been envious.

At any rate, while blundering around the net last week, I came across an article by Christopher Wanjek titled “ Smoking's Many Myths Examined”, written in November, 2008.

Wanjek notes that: “Surprisingly, fewer than 10 percent of lifelong smokers will get lung cancer. Fewer yet will contract the long list of other cancers, such as throat or mouth cancers. In the game of risk, you're more likely to have a condom break than to get cancer from smoking.” Uh-huh.

Of course, the fact that 9 out of 10 smokers will not die from lung cancer is unlikely to instil the requisite fear in the smoking population. So, as Wanjek notes, the statistics are twisted to make them even more alarming; smoking accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths; 87 percent of lung cancer deaths are attributable to smoking; etc, etc.

Wanjek notes that, to the average smoker, these figures are meaningless. He points out that: “The Internet is rife with pro-smoking sites dismissing these kinds of facts.”

I suppose he means blogs like this one. But, the inference is that we are dismissing “facts”, rather than questioning the propaganda of the anti-smoker crowd who tend to spin the facts beyond recognition. Perhaps if the facts about smoking, as presented by the anti-smoker crowd, were a little more consistent, a little more honest, there would be nothing to question.

For example, the claim that smoking causes 85% to 90% of lung cancer. The last figures from Health Canada show only 78% of lung cancer deaths were attributed to smoking. Isn't 78% scary enough?

In 2006, Health Canada (and everyone else in the anti-smoker brigade) was claiming over 47,000 Canadians were dying every year from smoking. By the end of 2007, there were only 37,000 deaths attributable to smoking. And, although Health Canada acknowledged using faulty data for years, some anti-smoker groups are still using the inflated numbers.

In 2004, the US Surgeon-General declared that the evidence was sufficient to declare a causal association between cervical cancer and smoking. Apparently, the SG (and Health Canada) were both wrong.

Wanjek begins his article by pointing out that: “Scientists have succeeded in associating the habit with everything from countless cancers to bad-hair days, or so it seems with some reports.” Interesting. But, I must admit, I haven't read the study on bad hair days.

Then later, he bemoans the fact that 43 million Americans continue to smoke. “Part of the problem of the misconception of real risks is the emphasis on smoking and lung cancer. The greater danger is from vascular diseases leading to heart attacks and stroke, which kill more smokers than all cancers combined.”

And, he may be right. But, then again . . .

Alas, he shoots himself in the foot when he claims that: “Rarely are simple messages heard, such as the fact that about half of all smokers will die from smoking, and of these, about half will die before or around age 50. These numbers come from a landmark 50-year study of physicians in England, initiated in 1951.”

I suspect he's referring to Doll and Hill's famous (or infamous) “British Doctors” study. I must have missed the part about half of smokers dying “before or around age 50”. Even Health Canada doesn't have the audacity to make that claim.

He also says: “The life expectancy for a smoker in the United States is about 64, which is 14 years shorter than the national average (which includes smokers), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

If such is the case, the US must be using a much more deadly blend of tobacco than we do up here in the Great White North. Health Canada puts the average age for smoking attributable deaths at just under 72.

Using Health Canada's Smoking Attributable Mortality (2002) data, we can see that, of the lung cancer deaths attributed to smoking, 56% occurred after the age of 70. And, for the record, 56% of deaths from lung cancer which were not attributed to smoking also occurred after the age of 70.

But, what about the other “smoking related”diseases mentioned by Wanjek? Maybe smokers are dropping like flies from “vascular diseases leading to heart attacks and stroke” before celebrating their fiftieth birthday?

Actually, no. As near as I can tell from Health Canada figures, over 70% of smoking attributable deaths occur after age 65. In every disease classification save one, over 50% of smoking attributable deaths occur after age 70, with 93% of smoking attributable deaths from atherosclerosis and 81% of those from COPD occurring after 70 years of age.

In fact, for atherosclerosis and COPD, the percentage dying past 80 years of age is 57% and 52% respectively. For pneumonia and influenza, the percentage dying at 70 plus is 89%, with over 71% dying past the age of 80.

So, Wanjek's claim that over half of smokers who die of smoking related diseases do so “before or around age 50” is shown to be grossly exaggerated. In fact, it's complete bullshit. He misses the mark by 20 years.

Anti-smoker zealots, it seems, never tire of the bullshit and bafflegab.

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