Friday, November 28, 2008

Movie smoking kills kids?

There are outfits in the States, proud members of the anti-smoker brigade, who want to “save the kids” by forcing movie makers to remove scenes of people smoking from movies.

According to one such group, smokefreemovies, “smoking harms children from the earliest years and U.S. films with smoking are a vector for addiction, disease and death worldwide.” Wow!

Imagine that! Just the image of someone lighting up will turn your child into a tobacco addicted, smoke belching fiend. Smoking, of course, will lead to an abnormal existence; spousal and child abuse; bludgeoning family and friends with secondhand smoke. They may well become criminals, refusing to pay extortion demanded by their government and buying tax-free, contraband tobacco.

And, naturally, they’ll all die of some smoking related disease or another - eventually. The fact that many more non-smokers die of smoking related diseases than smokers is immaterial. There’s no need to obscure the issue by pointing out that we are all destined to die - eventually.

And, is there any doubt that eliminating smoking in the movies will protect children? Not according to SmokeFreeMovies who tell us that “R-rating future smoking would avert 60,000 tobacco deaths a year in the U.S.” Uh-huh.

That’s a pretty impressive number. Imagine, 60,000 deaths “averted” just by eliminating pictures of people smoking. Can you believe it? Seriously?

Of course they have studies to prove it.

In 2003 a research group at Dartmouth Medical School recruited 2,603 adolescents (age 10-14) who had never tried smoking. After collecting detailed information about attitudes and other factors that predict smoking, they were tracked for 13-26 months to see who started smoking. They found that 10% of the kids started to smoke. And, “the more on screen smoking the kids saw, the more likely they were to have started to smoke.

But remember, there’s also a “scientific” study which shows that a parent smoking outside will still expose his children to harm because the secondhand smoke will follow him into the house, clinging tenaciously to his clothing and his breath. And, one which shows that kids exposed to even a whiff of secondhand smoke can suffer the same withdrawal symptoms as smokers?

At any rate, to protect the children, smokefreemovies (and the whole world, apparently) is demanding an “R” (Restricted) rating for any Hollywood film which shows someone smoking. Of course, the extremists are prepared to make exceptions; portrayals of actual historical figures who smoked, for example.

And, they won’t insist that smoking content be edited from movie classics like “Casablanca”, at least for now. They’ll get around to that once their campaign against smoking on TV is launched.

Of course, an “R” rating would likely cut the target audience of some films by as much as 50%. And, given the production costs of your average movie these days, could turn those films into money losing propositions. But then, there’s probably a study showing that banning smoking in the movies will have no financial impact on box office receipts. And, let’s not forget it would avert 60,000 deaths annually.

Dr. Simon Chapman, a professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, wrote a commentary recently criticizing the proposal. He pointed out the inconsistency of an “R” for smoking, while allowing a movie like “What Happens in Vegas” (with Cameron Diaz) with scenes of “binge drinking, failure to wear seat belts, intoxication leading to possibly unprotected sex, gambling and a parody of spousal abuse."

He, in turn, was criticized by the anti-smoker establishment of which he is a part. So, Dr. Chapman responded to the criticism of his criticism. Follow me?

Says Dr. Chapman: “The reductio ad absurdum of arguments to prevent children seeing any smoking in movies would be to stop children seeing any smoking anywhere. By what magic process could the sight of smoking in film be influential while being benign in reality? Doubtless the time is not far away when someone wielding research will call for public smoking to be classified alongside indecent exposure as a felony.

I would not wish to be associated with such nonsense and believe many others share my concerns that momentum to selectively prune unacceptable health related behaviours from film, holds open the door for a conga line of other supplicants using the same reasoning. This should be resisted by all who value freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, despite his obvious credentials, Dr. Chapman’s reasoned arguments will fall on deaf ears. The anti-smoker crowd will continue to press to have smoking eradicated from movies, television and magazines. They’ll continue their efforts to hide tobacco products from the prying eyes of adolescents and adults alike, as they do in Canada.

They’ll continue to lobby politicians to impose smoking bans in parks, on sidewalks and on beaches so children will never see a real live smoker. In time, they may even push to have any reference to smoking removed from books, including the dictionary.

And, once smoking has been removed from the minds of the masses, smokers eradicated and death from smoking related diseases has become a thing of the past . . .

Reductio ad absurdum. What a wonderful expression. Disproof of a proposition by showing that it leads to absurd or untenable conclusions

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama is a smoker . . .

For decades now, the public has been inundated with “scientific evidence”, allegedly proving that tobacco is the most toxic substance in existence. To the anti-smoker fanatics, smoking is the only impediment to man’s immortality. The perceived threat is so great they’ve made it their life’s work to eradicate the scum responsible for the continuation of the lethal habit; smokers.

Smokers have been branded as murderous maniacs, bent not only on their own self-destruction, but in spreading death and disease to family, friends, co-workers and even complete strangers.

Smoking around children has been defined by many as “child abuse”. Smokers in many jurisdictions have been denied the privilege of adopting or fostering children. In others, they can be thrown out of their homes. In a growing number of cases, employers are free to discharge workers who smoke – on or off the job. They can be required to submit to gross intrusions of privacy, such as providing urine or blood samples.

And, then . . .

Just as the vilification of smokers reaches its zenith, a smoker is elected to the Presidency of the United States. Uh-huh. It’s being reported around the world; US President Elect Obama is a smoker.

And, even if he has quit as some claim, his smoking status can’t really be denied. He has admittedly smoked over one hundred cigarettes in his lifetime, and he’s reported to have been smoking a lot of OPs (Other Peoples) over the last couple of months. No. There can be little doubt he qualifies as a current smoker.

The question is: does it matter?

Likely, it will offend anti-smoker crusaders who might tend to view him as the enemy in their ever-escalating war on smokers. After all, they can’t have kids running around telling their parents or teachers they want to grow up to be president and smoke. No. Smoking makes him a bad role model. He’ll have to follow Michelle’s advice and quit.

The anti-smoker crowd will really get their drawers in a knot if he should become the poster boy for another minority.

But, will the fanatics take their terror tactics to the very steps of the White House? Will they demand he do his smoking outside, in weather fair and foul, as they now do to the old and infirm in hospitals and rest homes? Will they demand, after he’s sworn in as the new President, that he subject himself to the indignity of pissing in a bottle every morning to prove he is not endangering White House staff with his secondhand smoke?

No. It’s pretty clear the anti-smoker brigade will not attack Obama with the same ferocity they attack the more vulnerable members of society who choose to smoke. After all, the President Elect has seen the light and become a quitter. Or at least, he’s trying to be; struggling perhaps, but still trying.

They’ll most likely try to coerce him into quitting, for both the public good and his own. There are drugs available to help him kick the habit. And, that’s a whole lot more scary than a smoking President. Think about it.

What if the zealots convince Obama to try Zyban or Chantix to help him quit? Both these smoking cessation drugs have been associated with mental disorders and suicidal ideation, among other side affects.

It’s one thing to risk the mental health of common smokers or have them blow their brains out. Any anti-smoker will tell you we’re expendable and not among the most healthy segment of society. It’s worth losing a few of us if some of us quit.

But, Obama is about to become, arguably, the most powerful man in the world.

Does anyone really want to run the risk that he might become the first president in history to leave office in a straight-jacket; or worse, the first president ever to commit self-assassination? It boggles the mind.

Let the man smoke. For all our sakes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Smokers - hounded 'til death

Before anti-smoker crusaders launched their war against smokers, personal behaviour, whether or not it might be deemed unhealthful, was considered an individual’s private business. Among the personal behavior frowned on was drinking, overeating and smoking.

Through the years, these activities have been considered by many to be not only unhealthy, but immoral. But, since they were essentially private indulgences, they were generally accepted by the public as little more than a nuisance; sinful perhaps, but harmful to no one but those who chose to indulge.

To be sure, the sale of some legal products has always been controlled to some degree, largely to protect children deemed too young and inexperienced to make responsible decisions on their own. Regulations on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol to minors are prime examples.

Few have opposed these legitimate restrictions. The vast majority of adults understand instinctively the need to shelter children from questionable habits, at least until they can fully appreciate the possible adverse consequences of their actions.

Unfortunately, the fanatics have also convinced the public that it’s not only children who need protection, but workers and the general public as well. They’ve managed to escalate a mere nuisance like secondhand smoke to the status of public health hazard.

But, the agenda of the anti-smoker fanatics has little to do with protecting anyone; it’s really about punishing smokers for insisting they have a right to consume a legal product and engage in a legal activity. It’s about control. And, the agenda of the fanatics leaves no room for compassion.

How else can you interpret efforts by Britain’s NHS (National Health Service) to close smoking rooms for terminally ill patients in Birmingham, England?

The Sheldon Unit, a palliative care home for terminally ill patients is one of only two health care facilities in the region with smoking rooms provided on sympathetic grounds.

Board members in charge of the unit, on learning of plans to upgrade the smoking room with a new ventilation system, intervened. Dr Chris Spencer-Jones, South Birmingham public health director, ranted against the renovation, determined to deny smokers one of their few remaining pleasures, even at death’s door.

It doesn’t matter if patients might be terminally ill,” said Spencer-Jones, “that is not relevant because there are other units where such patients cannot smoke. The practice at the Sheldon Unit is unacceptable.”

The question is why? Why is it unacceptable to allow smokers, at Sheldon Unit or any palliative care facility, to retain a little dignity as they face death? Why is it necessary to denigrate and demean these people to the bitter end; aren’t they suffering enough as it is? What in God’s name have they done to deserve such despicable treatment?

Nor can Canadians claim any superiority to the arrogant, outlandish treatment of the elderly and infirm in Great Britain.

Jack Lakey, in a Dec 6, 2006 article in the Toronto Star, told the story of Suzanne Penny, diagnosed with cancer, destined to die and forced outside and into the cold to enjoy a smoke. Cigarettes may have been the cause of the cancer that ravaged her body, but they also provided some solace as she awaited death.

Dennis Brown, CEO of Grace Hospital, is quoted by Lakey as saying: "When that bill was being enacted, we actually did consult with the ministry (Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion) specifically about our palliative care unit. We were told very clearly that there would be no exemptions for palliative care units."

Lakey’s article also points out the hypocrisy of the situation, noting that: “both the University of Toronto and York University recently created rooms for professors who smoke marijuana for medical reasons, but didn't want to sneak around outside to do it.”

Yet, the elderly, the infirm and the terminally ill are herded into parking lots like cattle; deprived of dignity; subjected to callous and inhumane treatment simply because they choose to smoke.

And the anti-smoker bigots sit in their cushy offices and pat themselves on the back for their efforts to “save mankind” from a hazard which has never been proven to exist.

There’s a name for people like them. As a matter of fact there are several. You can take your pick.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tobacco, punitive taxation equal tragedy

Massena overlooks the mighty St Lawrence River in the most northerly part of New York State. On Friday, November 14, two residents of Massena were killed instantly when their car was struck by a suspected cigarette smuggler fleeing police.

Edward and Eileen Kassian, both 77, were returning home following a visit to Montreal. The second vehicle involved in the collision was a minivan driven by 21-year-old Dany Gionet, of St. Jean sur Richelieu, Que. All three were pronounced dead at the scene.

Residents of the Akwasesne Reserve are justifiably upset over the incident calling it senseless and uncalled for. "The Mohawk police did not disengage and set up a barrier or spike the roadway. The suspect vehicle was trapped," said Akwesasne resident Kateri Benedict. "The driver would have abandoned that vehicle, instead the Akwesasne Mohawk Police continued with a high-speed pursuit and ramming of the vehicle until the fatal crash."

Full details of the pursuit have not been released as yet pending an investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Some Canadians will blame the suspect in the case for allegedly engaging in illegal activity. Some will blame the police for what is alleged to be an unnecessary pursuit.

But, there are others deserving of blame in this tragic incident.

Anti-smoker bigots have been leading spineless politicians down the road to tobacco prohibition for decades. Yet neither has the courage to admit it; neither has the courage to call for outright prohibition. Both understand the consequences of such a prohibition.

Wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in relation to the ending of alcohol prohibition in the early thirties, wrote: “Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

Tobacco prohibition would be no different. So, governments, under constant pressure from anti-smoker groups, use a piecemeal approach to prohibition. A public campaign to “de-normalize” those who choose to smoke has been initiated by the anti-smoker bigots, with the full consent of the government. Draconian smoking bans and blatant discrimination directed at smokers is the order of the day.

And, then there’s taxation.

Cigarette smuggling has become a very lucrative proposition in recent years, as senior levels of government continue to increase already punitive levels of taxation on smokers in efforts to force them to quit. Tobacco taxes have increased to historical highs and there is still constant pressure from anti-smoker activists to increase them even further.

According to the latest figures from Physicians for a Smokefree Canada, combined federal-provincial tax revenue for the 2006 – 2007 fiscal year was almost 7 Billion dollars, excluding federal and provincial sales taxes. Earlier this year, the federal Minister of Public Safety was lamenting the fact government was losing over 2 billion a year in taxes to the sale of contraband (black market) tobacco.

Tobacco is still a legal product in Canada. Smoking is still a legal activity. But, punishing levels of taxation have made it unaffordable for a growing number of Canadians. They will look for lower priced product. And, given the billions of dollars at stake, they will find someone to provide it.

The anti-smoker brigade will whine about contraband inhibiting their crusade to force smokers to quit. The government will whine about the loss of billions in taxes. They will scream in unison for tougher enforcement measures against contraband and ignore the lessons learned from the prohibition of alcohol.

Neither will accept any culpability for the recent tragedy in Akwasesne.

But, in the eyes of one old rambler, both are as guilty as hell.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Million dollar gift exploits children?

Harland David Sanders made buckets of money selling Kentucky Fried Chicken by the bucketful. And both before and after his death (through the Colonel Sanders Charitable Organization) he has been very generous with the fortune he accumulated.

One of the foundation’s most recent gifts was to McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. In appreciation for the one million dollar donation, McMaster renamed a ward “The Colonel Harland Sanders Inpatient Unit” and, horror of horrors, hung a plaque of the Colonel in the hallway. Uh-huh.

Some people have taken great exception to this simple display of gratitude for what is, by any standard, a very generous gift.

Andre Picard, for example, says in a November 13 article in the Globe and Mail: “Childhood obesity is a serious, pressing health problem, so what message are we sending by renaming part of a pediatric hospital after a fast-food icon?”

The message is, and should be; ‘Thank you for your kind support. It will provide much needed funding to treat childhood obesity and other pressing health problems.’

But, according to Picard, it is unacceptable for McMaster Children’s Hospital and other public institutions to “prostitute themselves in this manner?” Says Picard: “They should be setting an example for healthy living, not shilling for fast food, however indirectly.”

Wow. McMaster a shill for the fast food industry? Because they accept private funding to provide much needed health care? And then have the audacity to say ‘Thank You’. My God, the degenerates.

He admits in his article that government does not provide adequate funding, yet, at the same time chastises a venerable health-care facility for accepting funding from private charitable foundations. But, Picard offers no alternative sources of financial support for the health care services which that million dollar gift will provide. Is he perhaps willing to write a personal cheque?

And, Picard is not alone in his condemnation of McMaster. The Globe and Mail published a letter to the editor the day after Picard’s article. The letter was written by Peter Nieman, a pediatrician. Says Dr. Nieman: “It's a huge disconnect when pediatricians accept fast-food and junk-food generated money. Until we see obesity in the same way we see smoking, we haven't even started to scratch the surface. Imagine a pediatric cardiology clinic sponsored by a tobacco company.

The only disconnect I can see is that of Picard and Nieman; disconnect from reality. Are these two really suggesting that Hospitals and other health care facilities should turn down required funding because it was generated by the fast food industry?

Says Picard: “At some point, accepting donations - charitable or otherwise - from organizations associated with fast food needs to become as unacceptable as accepting dirty dollars from the tobacco industry.” Uh-huh.

Picard should get his nose out of his computer, take a deep breath and smell the roses.

Is the fast food industry the new menace of mankind? Will the obese and the overweight soon be subjected to the same kind of demeaning de-normalization campaign as smokers? Actually, that campaign has already begun. But, that’s another topic

Picard reserves both special praise and venom for MacDonalds. “Ronald McDonald House Charities of Canada has done a tremendous service to sick children and their parents by building a dozen Ronald McDonald Houses throughout the country, offering low-cost accommodation along with numerous family rooms in pediatric hospitals (including McMaster Children's Hospital).

Again, intentions are good but, honestly, should kids with life-threatening illnesses (and their families) have to depend on burger-generated generosity for proper care? Is the fast-food giant in such desperate need of good publicity that it has to get it off the backs of gravely ill youngsters?”

The fact is that many families are dependent on the generosity which these foundations provide. Why disparage the industry providing that generosity and support. I suspect you’ll find most families and individuals utilizing these facilities are grateful.

And, if McDonalds or KFC get a little free publicity for their largesse, good luck to them.

Picard, however, thinks McMaster and other public health institutions should have nothing to do with it. “It's obvious why fast-food companies would want to be visible to children and their parents. But why would our public health system have any part of these chicken wings and clown rooms? Should we allow children, in particular, to be exploited in this manner? Sell our souls so we can spiff up a few rooms in our pediatric hospitals?

How can any rational human being suggest that providing a playroom to keep a sick kid’s mind off his/her problems is exploitive? How can a reasonable individual suggest that providing inexpensive accommodation to a parent, allowing that parent to be close to their sick child, is anything but beneficial?

How can they ignore the benefits that will accrue from the million dollar donation by the Colonel Sanders Charitable Organization?

McMaster Children’s Hospital, by accepting the gracious gift, didn’t sell their soul. They emphasized their commitment to providing high quality health care to those who need it.

Should we allow children, in particular, to be exploited in this manner?”

If it helps put a smile on a sick kid’s face? Hell, Yeah.

Note: The little girl in the graphic which accompanies this post is the youngest of my seven grandchildren. The pretty pink cast came compliments of the doctors and staff at McMaster. The smile (and the attitude) are all her own.

Monday, November 17, 2008

SHS, smoking bans and suspect studies

Another “study” showing a decline in heart attacks due to smoking bans. Another headline, this time from the Boston Globe: “Smoking ban tied to a gain in lives.” Uh-huh. Smoking bans no longer just save lives, they “gain” lives. Of course, since these people were alive before they didn’t die, it can’t honestly be said that their not dying was a gain in lives.

The Globe article refers to a study conducted by the state Department of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health. It claims there have been 577 fewer deaths from heart attacks every year since a statewide smoking ban was implemented in mid-2004.

Massachusetts banned smoking in most restaurants, bars, and other workplaces four years ago. Anti-smoker crusaders are determined to show that smoking bans save lives to justify the adverse social and economic consequences which usually follow.

Dr. George Philippides, a cardiologist from Boston Medical Center, had this to say: “Secondhand smoke is an insidious killer. As a cardiologist, I’ve witnessed secondhand smoke’s harmful effects on my patients. This study shows how a public policy to eliminate secondhand smoke exposure can save lives on a large scale.”

Over the past few years, many studies have attempted to link smoking bans with declines in heart attacks. Helena (Montana), Pueblo (Colorado), Bowling Green (Kentucky), Scotland, England, France, etc. All previous studies were shown to be unreliable and were panned by critics and smoking ban supporters alike.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a Boston University School of Public Health expert in tobacco control has been highly critical of these studies. But, Siegel is quoted in the Globe article as saying: "This is the strongest study yet done of the effect of smoking bans on heart attacks. You can no longer argue that these declines would have occurred simply due to medical treatment."

Is Siegel right? Is this study legitimate?

The anti-smoker crowd is claiming the people who never died were people who never smoked, protected from secondhand smoke because of the smoking ban. Ergo, smoking bans save the lives of non-smokers by reducing their exposure to secondhand smoke.

But, anti-smoking activist Siegel says: “Moreover, the observed decline in heart attack mortality is likely due to the sharp reduction in the number of smokers. It likely has little to do with reduced secondhand smoke exposure.” Ergo, smoking bans save the lives of smokers by forcing them to quit.

But how many of those 577 were non-smokers saved from the indignity of exposure to SHS? How many were smokers who saved themselves by quitting? Is there any way to tell?

Actually, there may be a way to estimate the number of deaths among smokers and non-smokers. We can use the same technique used by the anti-smoker brigade, a Smoking Attributable Fraction (SAF).

For example, StatCan notes there were 40,607 deaths due to Ischemic Heart Disease, which includes Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI or heart attacks), in 2002. Health Canada applies an SAF to the total number of deaths to estimate the number of IHD deaths attributable to secondhand smoke exposure annually.

Although the data from Canada is unlikely to be directly applicable to the US, it should serve to provide a rough estimate as to the number of deaths which could be expected due to heart attacks as a result of exposure to SHS.

Health Canada uses an SAF of 1.6% for males (1.2% for females) multiplied by the total number of deaths from IHD to estimate the number of deaths related to SHS exposure. If the same SAF (we’ll use the higher fraction of 1.6%) were applied to the heart attacks that never happened, you get roughly 10 deaths out of 577 that could be expected due to SHS exposure.

The authors of this study are suggesting that at least a majority of these 577 heart attacks that didn’t happen were non-smokers who might have been exposed to SHS had it not been for the smoking ban? But, the numbers just aren’t there. At least, not without a little fiddling.

But, what about Dr. Siegel’s contention that the precipitous drop in heart attack deaths was the result of “a sharp decline in the number of smokers”? While Siegel’s assertion is the more plausible of the two, it raises a few questions of its own.

The SAF used by Health Canada, if applied to the total number of deaths (577) which never happened, can estimate (supposedly) the percentage of smokers who would otherwise be expected to die of heart attacks. Since details are unavailable as to age or sex, we’ll use the SAF for the group with the largest number of smoking related IHD deaths.

In Canada, this occurs in the population aged between 45 and 59 years of age. The SAF for males is 42.2%; for females, it’s 37.3%. We’ll use the highest percentage across the board since gender has not been established. So, again using Canadian SAFs, we can estimate the number of smokers expected to die at 42.2% of 577 or 244 deaths among smokers.

And, the SAF declines dramatically for those 60 to 69, and again between 70 and 79 until it bottoms out at 8.9% for males and 5.1% for females in those 80 years of age and older. In Canada, over 52% of the deaths due to IHD occur in the population over the age of 80 (mean age 87). This means the estimated deaths attributed to smoking will likely be overstated for this exercise.

Without the ban in place, the 577 deaths that might have occurred would have broken down like this: smokers = 244; nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke = 10; and non-smokers never exposed to SHS = 323.

As stated previously, the Canadian SAFs likely cannot be directly applied to the US study. But they do provide a rough estimate as to how many deaths might be apportioned in each category: smoker, non-smoker exposed to SHS and never exposed non-smoker.

But, even these rough estimates raise serious concerns about the conclusion of the study authors that the smoking bans protect the public from death due to SHS exposure. These rough estimates suggest the majority of lives “saved” following the smoking ban would have been never-smokers never exposed to secondhand smoke.

Siegel’s contention, that the reduction was due to smokers who had been coerced into quitting by the smoking ban, is more credible. But, the portion of the 577 who didn’t die from smoking would have been roughly 244, who may, or may not, have escaped death by quitting.

The fact that heart attack deaths (along with smoking prevalence) had been declining steadily for many years prior to the ban, suggests that something other than the ban has contributed significantly to the decline in heart attack mortality.

I suspect this study will prove as inconclusive as the rest in demonstrating a direct correlation been smoking bans and a reduction in heart attacks or heart attack deaths. But, of course, there'll be another day, another study and another opportunity for the anti-smoker crusade to prove smokers are murderous scum.

Count on it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Stop smoking - warnings

The man in the picture appears to be dying. He’s lying in a hospital bed, breathing through an oxygen mask and you just know he’s ready to kick the bucket any time now . . . because he’s a smoker. But, is he really sick, or is it just a little movie magic intended to frighten the kiddies into shunning the despicable and deadly demon weed. No - No. The other demon weed; tobacco.

You’ve all seen them; those ugly health warnings plastered over the front and back of cigarette packages. Twenty-three countries now have laws, or are about to implement laws, forcing tobacco companies to display graphic warnings on their cigarette packages.

The picture in question (the man about to expire from some unnamed smoking related illness) appears on a pack of Egyptian smokes, and it’s sparked a lawsuit in that country. The man, Hamdy Balala, is apparently not sick. So, Khaled Shaaban, a lawyer, is suing the Egyptian Minister of Health for trickery, claiming the posed picture has duped and frightened the public.

I guess Mr. Shaaban doesn’t quite grasp the concept of the warnings. Obviously, he didn’t get the memo explaining the intention of the picture was to disgust and strike fear in your typical smoker. Egypt has one of the highest smoking prevalence rates (60% among males) in the world. They obviously have to be subjected to a lot of fear and disgust to keep the anti-smoker brigade happy.

Balala, who posed for the picture, is actually a very healthy, heavy smoker. His picture appeared on Facebook recently, puffing passionately on a fag while holding up a cigarette pack with the picture of him on his death bed. It was the Facebook picture which prompted Shaaban to launch the lawsuit and demand the resignation of the Health Minister.

Says Shaaban: “If he deceived the public then he will never be credible, and he will never gain the public’s trust in any of his actions.” The man does not get out enough. Anti-smoker fanatics have never had all that much credibility in some quarters.

Regardless, the latest research shows that smokers seldom pay any attention to the warnings. In fact, after the novelty wears off and the kids have collected the full set, they become something of a joke.

Indeed, some research has found that the warnings have an opposite affect than that which was intended. They prompt a desire to smoke. Danish marketing authority, Martin Lindstrøm, surveyed several thousand smokers and found that they associated the warnings with pleasure. Every time a smoker pulls out a pack, the warning is associated with something pleasant that is about to happen. Smoking.

Just for laughs, I asked a few smoking friends what they thought of the health warnings.

“Marie, do you know what the warning on your cigarette pack says?” I asked one.

“What?” she stammered, unaware I was taking a poll. “How in bloody hell am I supposed to know?” She asked, reaching into her purse. “Something about smoking being bad for me.”

“Every year the equivalent of a small city dies from tobacco use.” She recited. Then, putting on her glasses so as to better read the fine print: “Is that 45,000 Canadians who’ll die from smoking? I think there might be three or four different warnings.”

Another friend responded: “I don’t know, I never look at them. How many? I don’t know. I think I might have seen at least half a dozen.”

Actually, there are 16 different graphic warnings randomly placed on each and every pack of cigarettes sold in Canada. Some of them even give honest, verifiable facts. I’ve got all 16 in my collection and I can’t wait to add the new ones Health Canada will be introducing next year.

But, the fact that the graphic warnings are no longer having any impact on smokers has not escaped the attention of anti-smoker crusaders.

In Canada, the government is being pressured to make the graphics bigger, better and even more pornographic than those already being used. The zealots are demanding warnings similar to those in use in Australia, which cover three-quarters of the front and half the back of the pack with the most disgusting imagery they can find.

Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada claim that size matters. “Effectiveness of warning labels has been shown to increase with the size of the warnings. The bigger they are, the more likely they are to be noticed and read by the smoker.” Uh-huh.

Hey, wait a minute. Why didn’t I think of this before? There may be a decent marketing opportunity here. What if we take those health warnings from around the world and turn them into a series of collector cards. Maybe Topps would be interested.

People wouldn’t have to go rooting around in the garbage for empty cigarette packages to fill out their collection. They could have a nice clean picture card with a nice fresh bubble gum smell. And, while the money's rolling in, we’d be doing a public service; scaring the bejeezers out of the kids.

I wonder who owns the copyright to those things.

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.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The making of a criminal updated

Last month I wrote an article on this blog about George Orwell’s Newspeak and the way some busybodies in our society had resorted to distorting the true meaning of words to avoid the negative impact of the correct words. For example, using the words “help” or “encourage” when what they actually mean is “coerce” or “force.”

I noted in my article that, for Newspeak to be effective, Big Brother had to re-write the dictionary. As Orwell noted, if the word doesn’t exist, you can’t talk about it. If you remove the words “freedom” and “liberty”, for example, you can’t talk about them. And, it wouldn’t be long before the very concept of freedom was lost.

And, it would be difficult to discuss a revolution, since that word would likely be erased from the dictionary as well, pertaining, as it so often does, to liberty.

I opined in that article that rewriting the dictionary would be an impossible task in this electronic age. I hope I’m right.

Today, I had planned to write on Bob Gee’s pending criminal charges under a law recently implemented by the provincial government of Nova Scotia and the defense he intends to use in court. My original post on Gee’s problems was published here back in July.

As I read the newspaper article,I got to thinking about how it might look if the government could simply censor words pertaining to commodities or issues that met with their displeasure. So I wrote the first four paragraphs censoring a single word and its derivatives. Orwell was right. Without the words, meaningful communication is damn near impossible.

KENTVILLE — The lawyer for Kentville (Censored) Bob Gee will argue that a provincial law requiring his client to cover all products in his store violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Adam Church said Wednesday displaying (Censored) is "a form of advertising and is therefore expression, which our Constitution protects."

If a judge agrees, there would be another hearing, at which the provincial government would have to "demonstrably justify that the law is a reasonable limitation on the right to freedom of speech," Mr. Church said.

Mr. Gee is charged under the (Censored) Access Act, which prohibits displaying (Censored) and (Censored) products with their labels visible. He is also charged with having too much (Censored) display space in his shop, Mader’s (Censored) Store.

Now, for anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis, the censored word will be readily discernible. Most others will be scratching their heads, wondering what the hell we’re talking about.

I find the effect quite chilling. Simply censoring the word restricts discussion. How could you have any sort of meaningful debate (like the one the anti-smoker brigade claims is over) if you couldn’t use the word?

The anti-smoker crowd could easily twist and distort the meaning of the piece using euphemisms. For example, “The lawyer for Kentville merchant of death Bob Gee will argue that a provincial law requiring his client to cover all products in his store violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Adam Church said Wednesday displaying coffin nails is a form of advertising and is therefore expression, which our Constitution protects."

It would be much easier to turn people against a “merchant of death” than a simple tobacconist trying to make a living; there would be much less sympathy for a man peddling “cancer sticks or coffin nails”, than a businessman displaying his product line.

Of course, there’s no real need for the anti-smoker cultists to go to such extremes. They and their backers in the pharmaceutical industry have the partisan press in their pocket. With the media withholding information from the public, there can be no debate. With only one side of the story being told in the press, the words “debate and discussion” could also be stricken from the dictionary.

At any rate, Bob Gee is a tobacconist who operates Mader’s Tobacco Store down in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

Bob has been charged under the NS Tobacco Access Act for failing to cover up his cigarette and other tobacco related displays. The government wants to protect minors from the remote possibility than one might sneak into his store and, before Bob gets a chance to throw his underage ass out, catch a glimpse of his line of fine tobaccos and instantly become addicted.

Rob Cunningham, policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, says bans on retail displays are essential to protect children and reduce smoking rates in general. Uh-huh.

Bob and his lawyer will appear in court on January 16 for a hearing. If the judge decides he has a legitimate challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there will be a second hearing and Bob will be allowed to argue his case.

Until then, Bob is determined to continue displaying, and selling, his wares. I wish him the best of luck.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Helping smokers . . . by messing with the brain

The descent down the slippery slope continues. Dr. Gerry Brosky, a researcher with Dalhousie University’s family medicine department, is planning a study to determine if Champix (varenicline) can be used to “help” a smoker to quit even if he doesn’t want to.

According to an article in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the doctor has been advertising for guinea pigs for his proposed study all summer. He already has about sixty volunteers, but needs about 230 participants for the study. The project is a blind study, with neither the participants nor Dr. Brosky knowing who is getting the drug and who is taking a placebo.

Dr. Brosky says: "The people I’m looking for very specifically don’t want to quit. So I have to turn away a lot of people who tell me they are ready to quit right now."

There are several reasons to question the ethics of this proposed study and a whole host of unanswered questions.

To begin with, the purpose of the study is to ascertain if smokers who don’t want to quit can be given medication to induce them to quit; or, as the newspaper article puts it, a “pill for puffers who don’t want to butt out”.

And, that is clearly the intent of this study; to determine whether the pleasure receptors in the brain can be altered to curtail the enjoyment the smoker experiences after lighting up, despite the fact that they don’t want to quit.

And, if it proves successful in curtailing the pleasure a smoker derives from lighting up, it could easily become a forced medical intervention. That doesn’t imply physically restraining a smoker to administer the medication. There are other ways to coerce an individual to “take the cure”.

If you want to keep your job, take the Champix. If you want to keep your apartment, take the Champix. If you don’t want to be a social outcast, take the Champix. If you want to keep your kids, take the Champix.

Or, perhaps it could be developed as a vaccine that can be given to children to prevent them from taking up the habit.

Far fetched? Paranoid? No. Not really. Dr. David B. Abrams is executive director of the Schroeder National Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Dr. Abrams said: “The real hope is that we could give pre-adolescent kids a vaccine, just like we do for childhood diseases.”

Which brings us to the choice of drugs for the study; Champix. It’s a smoking cessation drug which alters the pleasure pathways in the brain. It’s sold in the US under the name Chantix. And, Dr. Abrams thinks that Chantix is a “very safe and effective drug”.

However, the Chronicle-Herald article points out that: “Earlier this year, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a public health warning linking the drug to potentially serious neuropsychiatric symptoms such as changes in behaviour, agitation, depressed mood and suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Many people would consider this assertion to be something of an understatement. An article on this blog noted that, in addition to warnings from both Health Canada and the US FDA, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned pilots and air traffic controllers from using the drug. And, it has also been banned for use by commercial drivers in the US.

Furthermore, Dr. Michael Siegel reported in an article on his blog that: “A new report from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices revealed that Chantix (Champix in Canada) accounted for more reported serious injuries than any other prescription drug, including blackouts putting people at risk of accidents, and concluded that broader warnings are necessary to protect the public from the potential dangers of Chantix side effects.”

But, according to Dr. Brosky, in his own experience, he has seen only two patients become depressed while on the medication. "It’s hard to tell if it’s the medication or if it’s the sudden decrease in smoking or the way it interacts with smoking and the nervous system.

This brings us to the third troubling aspect of the proposed research; the potential for bias. According to the newspaper article, “Dr. Brosky has been working with Champix for three or four years, first in clinical trials and now in practice.”

The article does not make it clear if these clinical trials were undertaken on behalf of Pfizer (the manufacturer of the drug), for a third party, or if Dr. Brosky was conducting these trials on his own. However, if his previous clinical trials played any role in the subsequent approval of the drug by Health Canada, it may well introduce an element of bias into the results of the planned research.

Another disturbing aspect of the study is whether or not experimenting with human subjects under existing circumstances is ethical, given the health concerns already raised over the use of Champix. Presumably, the drug has already been shown to be beneficial, at least to some degree, in getting smokers to quit. Why is it necessary to establish, through human experimentation, if Champix can be used to induce smokers, who don’t want to quit, give up smoking?

And, lastly, is the size of this study adequate to "have the statistical power to see whether or not we are doing any good." Many studies on secondhand smoke, with much larger sample sizes (the IARC study commissioned by the World Health Organization, for example), have been dismissed because the sample size was too small.

The study is expected to take about a year and Dr. Brosky anticipates being able to compile the results by February of 2010. But, there’s one other unanswered question in the article from the Chronicle-Herald which needs answering.

Who’s funding the study?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

SHS – dishonest science, disreputable journalism

Earlier this month I commented on an article in the Toronto Star regarding the campaign to coerce smokers into quitting by putting their housing in jeopardy. This week, the anti-smoker fanatics have taken their dog and pony show to Nova Scotia. So, as an expatriate Cape Bretoner, we’ll have another look.

In the October 27 on-line edition of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, there’s an article by staff reporter Kristen Lipscombe. It’s a brief article, only 500 words, about a “public” meeting arranged by Smoke-Free Nova Scotia to discuss the ways and means of making multi-unit dwellings smoker free.

Ms. Lipscombe says in her article: “From property owners to tenants, a group of about 30 people are expected to gather in Halifax today to talk about tobacco use in apartment complexes.” Scheduled presenters included Pippa Beck of the Canadian Smoke-Free Housing Coalition, Mike DeRosenroll of the local Canadian Cancer Society division and, presumably, several other members of the anti-smoker crusaders club.

So, basically, what we have is a group of thirty individuals, who don’t like cigarette smoke or smokers, getting together to decide how to force users of a perfectly legal product to quit. Thirty like-minded radicals who will then declare there is consensus that the vast majority of Bluenosers think smokers are scum who don’t deserve a decent place to live unless they submit to the dictates of the anti-smoker brigade and give up their nasty habit.

No civil liberties group or smoker’s groups, to the best of my knowledge, were invited to attend or make a presentation at the meeting. This handful of hate-mongers will be free to promote their campaign of de-normalization and dehumanization of smokers without opposition. The predetermined outcome of the meeting will then be used to pressure government into passing blatantly discriminatory legislation based on deception and lies.

This type of propaganda operation is expected from anti-smoker activists. And, unfortunately, the press, in large measure, has elected to support the anti-smoker crusade in the role of cheerleader. The author of this piece seems to have relied heavily on the press release announcing the meeting, and, possibly a phone conversation with Sharon MacIntosh, President of Smoke-Free Nova Scotia.

The bias is evident beginning with the headline of the piece: “More renters may be asked to butt out.” The objective of this exercise is not to “ask” smokers to butt out. It’s meant to issue an ultimatum; either quit smoking or we’ll throw you into the street.

Nor is the meeting “a public consultation to look at opportunities to increase access to smoke-free housing”. Public consultations are held by governments at all levels to hear both sides of an issue; to listen to the concerns of all stakeholders and to make an informed decision which will benefit the majority while protecting the rights of the minority.

This lopsided affair totally ignores smokers, the 20% of the population most affected by the proposals. And, the reporter apparently felt no need to seek input from any source other than Smoke-Free Nova Scotia.

Ms. Liscombe quotes from a poll commissioned by Smoke-Free Nova Scotia for presentation at a meeting called by Smoke-Free Nova Scotia. This is not a report that most people would consider unbiased. No details on the poll are provided other than the fact that 400 people were polled and the poll was considered accurate within five percentage points 19 times out of twenty. None of the questions asked in the poll were given, so there is no way to determine the full extent of the bias.

That 62% of renters would back a smoking ban in their building is not surprising since roughly 80% of the population would likely be non-smokers.

Ms. MacIntosh is quoted as saying: "We’re looking for a non-legislative approach. Our goal is not to bring in a law to make it illegal to smoke in your home. It’s to increase access to smoke-free homes.”

But, at a similar conference held in Ontario, the participants noted a number of impediments to convincing landlords to go smoke free. The resulting report, stripped of the Orwellian newspeak, left little doubt that the anti-smoker crusaders are indeed looking for a legislative solution to force smokers to butt out.

Some examples: “Need definitive legal opinions, at least one per province, that landlords can enforce a no-smoking clause in a lease. Need to amend provincial tenancy law to make no-smoking clause in lease enforceable. Landlords don’t want to repeat no-pet clause fiasco (Ontario). Tenants not required under law to renew lease, can instead go on month-to-month agreement under terms of initial lease i.e. existing tenants cannot be forced to comply with a new smoking ban in building.”

No smoking clauses obviously need changes to existing legislation to make them enforceable. Claiming otherwise is deceptive and misleading.

But, the most blatant, and egregious, display of bias in the article is the quote from Sharon MacIntosh: "It’s (about) enabling people to make a choice to protect their health from a known health risk."

Had Ms. Lipscombe made any attempt to corroborate the veracity of that claim she would have found there is still a great deal of controversy within the scientific community over the issue of secondhand smoke. The fact is that the alleged hazards are neither definitive nor indisputable. In reality, for every study claiming that secondhand smoke is a major health hazard, there are six which show no such hazards exist.

Anti-smoker crusaders go to great lengths to suppress any scientific study which conflicts with their version of the truth. And, when they can’t challenge the science, they attack the personal integrity of those conducting it.

Thankfully, more and more scientists on both sides of the issue have begun to speak out about the bias in the research and the deliberate muzzling of many in the scientific community. Unfortunately, most of the criticism is confined to medical and scientific journals. For whatever reason, the press routinely ignores all such criticism, no matter how respectable the source.

A complacent, perhaps even complicit, press contributes significantly to the deception of the anti-smoker brigade. And, by doing so, they do a disservice to both the public they purport to serve and their chosen profession.