West County firefighters put out the (cigarette) smoke

Blythe Bernhard reported the story with the above headline in today’s (Saturday, Jul. 11, 2009) St. Louis Post-Dispatch and it garnered a number of comments from naysayers. A link noted by storywiz caught my eye, since he claimed it “debunked the whole nonsense about second hand smoke.” That must be some link, I thought!

The link at http://psyed.org/r/crit/crd/second_smoke.html took me to a page on the web site Critical Thinking titled Rationality: Second Hand Smoke Myth, allegedly quoting directly from Sid Kirchheimer on WebMD Health News. It refers to the (heavily criticized) study published in the British Medical Journal in May 2003 by Enstrom and Kabat. [Please see my previous blog American Heart Association and KEEP ST. LOUIS FREE! team up(?!) for additional information on this study.]

The article heading and subheading are:

Second hand Smoke Study Raises Ire
Study Shows No Association Between Passive Smoke and Health Risks

The article apparently reproduced in its entirety on Critical Thinking seems pretty clear-cut:

“May 15, 2003 — A controversial new study that questions the health risks of being exposed to secondhand smoke — a factor often said to contribute to some 50,000 American deaths each year — has outraged some health officials.

The new study, to be published in the May 17 issue of the British Medical Journal, shows no measurable rates of heart disease or lung cancer among nonsmokers who ever lived with smokers, and reports only a slight increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Many health agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, have long said that secondhand smoke boosts the risk of heart disease by about 30% and lung cancer risk by 25% in nonsmokers.

“We found no measurable effect from being exposed to secondhand smoke and an increased risk of heart disease or lung cancer in nonsmokers — not at any time or at any level,” lead researcher James Enstrom, PhD, MPH, of the UCLA School of Public Health, tells WebMD.

Since Sid Kirchheimer of WebMD seems to be a reputable source I found this article attributed to him surprising and did a search to find the original. I found it published on-line here. When you read Kirchheimer’s entire article he paints a completely different picture, starting with the full subheading in which I’ve bolded what Critical Thinking just happened to omit:

Study Shows No Association Between Passive Smoke and Health Risks; Others Criticize Research

The first three paragraphs above posted on Critical Thinking omit the two paragraphs immediately following on WebMD:

However, the American Cancer Society blasted the study — and Enstrom — for misusing its own data in an attempt to “confuse the public about the dangers of secondhand smoke.” And former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond, MD, is expected to join other medical experts in calling the study “bogus” in a news conference on Friday.

The study was funded in part by the Center for Indoor Air Research, which the American Cancer Society says is an arm of Philip Morris and other tobacco companies. Enstrom requested and received funding for the study in 1997.

The last paragraph on the Critical Thinking web page would also lead one to believe there’s little if any evidence of health problems caused by secondhand smoke exposure:

In fact, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 that 75% of studies done between 1980 and 1995 found no link between secondhand smoke and health problems.

However, read the WebMD article and the above paragraph is followed by this comment, again omitted by Critical Thinking:

“While this study is flawed, there are at least 50 very reputable studies that find a link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer and at least 50 others that find an increased risk of heart disease,” says Thun. (1)

(1) Michael Thun, MD, head of epidemiological research, American Cancer Society.

So once again we find selective information posted on the web which paints a completely false picture of the evidence linking secondhand smoke with disease in exposed nonsmokers, and which is then referenced in a comment following a Post-Dispatch story on West County firefighters being required to go smoke-free.

The tobacco industry may not appear to be actively involved in the “debate” anymore but there seem to be plenty of eager surrogates out there willing to take its place.

One response to “West County firefighters put out the (cigarette) smoke

  1. Funny since the latest study headed by Michael Thun backs Enstrom up. While you can see a clear increase of lung cancer rates for smokers, the rates for nonsmokers has remained unchanged since the 1930s regardless of exposure.

    What causes the disease in nonsmokers is not known, though researchers suspect genetic susceptibility combined with exposure to cancer-causing substances like asbestos, radon, certain solvents and other people’s tobacco smoke.

    Here is the actual study.

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