Monthly Archives: April 2009

Fear factor

We are being inundated with news about a killer virus that may be about to overwhelm humanity. Today, the World Health Organization raised the threat level to 5, one below pandemic level, so it was refreshing to see the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial “Fear factor” cautioning the public not to panic, noting the total laboratory-confirmed swine flu deaths to date as being only 8.

(As an aside: The U.S. government has proposed changing the name of the disease so that people don’t stop eating pork. Meanwhile, in Egypt the government is planning to slaughter the entire pig population based on dubious fears of contagion.)

The editorial went on to list total annual U.S. deaths from a variety of other common causes, including:

annual seasonal flu deaths: 36,000;
heart disease deaths for 2004: 652,486;
tobacco-related deaths: 438,000.

This reminds me just how easily the public and media can become obsessed with risks which may actually be small while ignoring major causes of premature death which are real but more familiar.

I think back to a story entitled “Killer Asteroids” by Harry Levins, former senior writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published on October 8, 1997. He posed the following question in the opening paragraph of his article:

Artist's impression of asteroid strike of the earth

Artist's impression of asteroid strike of the earth

“The odds of dying violently are greatest when the agent of violence is (choose one):

1. A tornado.
2. A flood.
3. An asteroid.

Answer: An asteroid.”

He went on to explain that two Air Force officers say that “we’re more likely to perish from an asteroid strike (1 chance in 25,000) than we are from a flood (1 in 30,000) or a tornado (1 in 60,000).” The officers suggest that we spend $122 million-a-year, averaged over 20 years, to combat this peril: a total of $2.44 billion.

Some other causes of premature death listed for comparison in the sidebar to the article:
Food poisoning: 1 in 3 million.
Fireworks Accident: 1 in 1 million.
Venomous Bite or Sting: 1 in 100,000
Airplane Accident: 1 in 20,000
Electrocution: 1 in 5,000
Firearms Accident: 1 in 2,500.
Fire: 1 in 800.
Murder: 1 in 300.
Car wreck: 1 in 100.

I posted the above on the web together with this discussion:

Harry Levins, who admits to enjoying a stogie now and again, failed to consider the dangers due to smoking, generally recognized as the number 1 avoidable cause of death in the U.S., so let’s correct that omission by figuring the risks from both active and involuntary smoking.

Using the same method of calculation as the Air Force officers, the lifetime chance of dying prematurely from each of these causes is respectively:

Smoking: 1 in 2.

Involuntary Smoking [“Secondhand smoke”]: 1 in 55.

In other words, smoking is like taking a double-barrelled shotgun with one barrel loaded, holding it to your head, and pulling the trigger during your smoking lifetime, and paying upwards of $30,000 or more for the privilege.

Premature death from involuntary smoking is about twice as likely as dying in a car wreck and six times as likely as being murdered. TV is full of mayhem caused by motor vehicles or handguns. When was the last time death from someone else’s tobacco smoke was portrayed or reported on TV?


Killer Asteroid. The two Air Force officers arrived at their 1 in 25,000 chance of a person being killed by an asteroid during their lifetime as follows:

The earth gets hit by an asteroid big enough to cause a global catastrophy once every 500,000 years, so the odds of that happening in any given year are 1 in 500,000. Assuming such an impact kills 25% of the Earth’s population, that makes the risk from an impact 1 in 4. The odds of any individual dying from an asteroid strike in any given year are 1 in 500,000 multiplied by 4, or 1 in 2 million.

But since we live on average 75 years, these odds must be multiplied by 75 to obtain the risk of premature death in any given year. Hence the lifetime odds of dying from an asteroid strike is 75 in 2 million, or 1 in 25,000.

Active Cigarette Smoking. For smokers, who number about 50 million adults, the number of deaths is estimated at over 400,000 each year, so the annual risk is about 400,000/50 million = 1 in 125. Since most smokers don’t start until they’re about 14 we should calculate the 75 year lifetime risk over 75-14 = 61 years.

So the lifetime risk is 61 x 400,000/50 million = 61/125 = 1 in 2.

Secondhand smoke. The total U.S. population was estimated as 266,499,365 on January 1, 1997, so the total number of nonsmokers is 266.5 million less 50 million = 216.5 million. The estimated number of deaths among nonsmokers each year due to involuntary smoking is 53,000 (1), so the lifetime risk of premature death = 75 x 53,000/216.5 million = 75/4,085 = 1 in 55.

(1) The figure of 53,000 was the best estimate available when the above calculation was made. The latest U.S. Surgeon General’s report on secondhand smoke (SHS), released in 2006, noted that in 2005 it was estimated that SHS kills more than 3,000 adult nonsmokers from lung cancer, and approximately 46,000 from coronary heart disease.

Illinois lawmakers giving up on trying to soften the smoking ban

The following article was circulated by Kathy Drea of the American Lung Association of Illinois. That state is standing firm against efforts to weaken or overturn its statewide smoke-free air law which has been in effect since the beginning of 2008.

Opponents of the law are pinning their hopes on a constitutional challenge. As noted in the article, “There are some lawsuits out there challenging the constitutionality of state governments ability to regulate smoking in private businesses.” It echoes the arguments of Bob Levy of the Libertarian Cato Institute, whom I recently debated in St. Louis, and who views smoking in private businesses as off-limits to government regulation. Kathy Drea and I disagree and I would expect the courts to do likewise.

Illinois lawmakers giving up on trying to soften the smoking ban
Jason Nevel, Quad-City Times | Posted: Friday, April 24, 2009 3:00 pm

SPRINGFIELD — Nearly two years after lawmakers approved a statewide smoking ban, early attempts to soften the law were shot down.

This spring, lawmakers have just about given up trying.

“I think with the makeup of this General Assembly, it’s a dead issue,” said Rep. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, who sponsored legislation last year to repeal the ban outright.

Cultra was one of several downstate lawmakers who struck out last year trying to carve out significant exemptions to the ban. Any attempt this year would be futile, he said.

“It’s a prerogative of the (House) speaker to which committee the legislation goes,” Cultra said. “When he’s not favorable — nothing happens.”

The statewide smoking ban went into effect Jan. 1, 2008. Last year, efforts at making exemptions for casinos, private clubs, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and fraternity houses died.

This year, lawmakers revisited the issue briefly to set rules on how to enforce the ban and allow smoking in university laboratories for research purposes. Other than that, one attempt was made to establish a smoking license, which would have been similar to a liquor license, and exclude religious ceremonies from the ban.

“You’ve got the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society, and they’re pretty strong lobby groups,” said Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan.

Kathy Drea, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association, said the media coverage two years ago enhanced the public’s knowledge of the dangers of second-hand smoke.
“There were over 2,400 newspaper articles, and I think it just raised the awareness,” Drea said.

Even if legislation made its way to the governor’s office, Pat Quinn has been a strong supporter of the ban and may veto it.

The smoking license legislation, House Bill 1145, was voted down 4-9 by a House committee.

Legislation that would allow smoking during certain religious ceremonies, Senate Bill 1685, was approved by the Senate and awaits further action in the House.

The best chance of altering the law this year is through the courts, according to Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline.

“There are some lawsuits out there challenging the constitutionality of state governments ability to regulate smoking in private businesses,” Jacobs said.

Drea said “bring on” any lawsuit because 25 states ban smoking altogether.

Battle lines drawn over smoking in St. Louis City

Below is a rough transcript taken from KTVI Fox 2 News on-line featuring St. Louis City Ald. Lyda Krewson’s proposed smoke-free air ordinance, which is due to be introduced in May. The story, which aired on Wednesday, April 22, 2009, can be viewed at

Ald. Krewson interview by Fox 2 News reporter, Betsy Bruce

Ald. Krewson interview by Fox 2 News reporter, Betsy Bruce

“The battle lines are being drawn over an effort to prevent smoking in public places in St. Louis City. Critics warn it could hurt the local economy. Supporters say it will clear the air of second hand smoke.

St. Louis City Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D) 28th Ward is ready to introduce an ordinance to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to ban smoking in public facilities ranging from bars to offices and even outdoor restaurants.

“The science behind second hand smoke is pretty clear. It’s really detrimental to our health,” said Krewson. Opponents argue it should be an individual’s option to go into a business where smoking is allowed. But the alderwoman said many workers do not have the option of leaving a job to avoid second hand smoke.

Under the measure as currently written no smoking would be allowed outdoors within 15 feet of an exit door, an operable window or an outdoor cafe. Bob Fuqua, manager of Hill Cigar Shop complained such laws “tread on the toes of individual liberty.” Although the measure would not stop him from selling cigars, it would prevent patrons from smoking them inside the business. That would also impact “cigar clubs” at local hotels and “cigar dinners” at restaurants.

A section of the bill prohibits its enforcement until St. Louis County has a similar law on the books. “We don’t want to pit one St. Louis business bar, restaurant against a St. Louis County bar or restaurant,” explained Krewson. “We are a region here and hopefully we can tackle some of these issues regionally.”

For a copy of the draft go to Once it is introduced on May 1 you can also find a copy on the St. Louis City web site at

Opponents web site:”

WashU to go smoke free by 2010

The following story appears on-line at and mirrors a story posted on the Wash. U. website at by Jessica Daues:

WashU to go smoke free by summer of 2010
By Kavita Kumar
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Washington University, St. Louis

Washington University, St. Louis

Washington University just announced that it will go smoke free by July 2010.

That means that smoking and tobacco use will be prohibited everywhere on campus, including on all university-owned and -managed properties.

“We know it will be difficult for some in the university community,” Chancellor Mark Wrighton said in a news release. “But we believe that this is the right and best policy for the health of all who live, work and study at Washington University.”

WashU already bans smoking in all of its buildings. And in 2007, the School of Medicine banned tobacco use on its property.

To help aid in the transition, the school will begin offering free smoking-cessation programs to students, faculty and staff members. Smoking-cessation medicine will also be given for free to students who want it and who are covered by the university’s student health insurance.

Between now and next summer, three university committees will be looking at how to best communicate the new policy as well as devising solutions to possible obstacles in implementing the new policy.

St. Charles Community College became a tobacco-free campus in 2007.

And the University of Missouri-Columbia banned smoking inside all of its buildings in January. The school also has prohibited smoking within 20 feet of building entrances, exits, windows and fresh-air intake systems. By 2011, Mizzou plans to have smoking in designated areas only. Chancellor Brady Deaton has said that the ultimate goal is to have the campus smoke-free by 2014.

Other local universities have been considering similar bans. For example, a student group at St. Louis University has been pushing for a similar policy on its campus for more than a year now.

The Grade is the St. Louis region’s premier blog on education and child welfare. To read other recent posts, go to

Battle over smoking looms in Clayton

The subheading is:

“Some restaurants oppose a ban, but two surveys show there’s support for it.”

The Cardinal’s season opener may have pushed the story off to the side of the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nonetheless, it had generated the most reader comments of any story today on-line: 130 as of 4:26 pm on Monday, April 6.

Please click the link to read the full story. You can also view and add comments following the story on the Post-Dispatch web site.