Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Look At It This Way

Is Second-Hand Smoke Really that Dangerous?

Treating smokers as second-class citizens?

Posted Jul 20, 2009

Traveling around the world, you will find few products made in the USA that come out on top. The locals will tell you about better wines from here, more dependable cars from there and brighter school children from almost anywhere. But no matter where you go, American tobacco is considered superior to all others. So, being as patriotic as the next guy, I have to wonder if tearing the guts out of that industry is really justified? Just how dangerous is second-hand smoke? I'll begin by admitting that I don't know. What troubles me is, who does?

The largest and longest study (Enstrom & Kabat) followed more than 35,000 subjects for almost 40 years and found no significant risk associated with second-hand smoke. Similarly, the World Health Organization spent seven years at a dozen research centers in seven countries and came to the same conclusion. This must have been very embarrassing to the WHO because they subsequently tried to do an about face with a paper titled Don't Let them Fool You. I read it carefully and had to wonder just who was trying to fool whom?

Anyway, think for a moment about how very hard it is to measure one's exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. The exposure of a woman married to a two-pack a day guy living in sunny SoCal where doors/windows remain open for much of the year will differ significantly from a similar wife living in Vermont where houses are sealed tight for the six-month winters. It's extremely difficult to design a valid experiment when you wind up comparing apples with oranges.

So I called the American Cancer Society and spoke with several people. My question seemed simple - "Why haven't we seen a decline in lung cancer deaths despite Draconian anti-smoking legislation?" - but it went unanswered. The ACS representatives didn't know and were clearly uncomfortable talking to the media. Eventually I reached a PR VP who, alas, also had no clue. Of course, I got a promise of "I'll get back to you on that." but I never heard another word. The tricky bit here is obvious. If they say deaths have decreased, they're looking at cuts in contributions. If they say deaths haven't decreased then one must wonder if their assumptions regarding tobacco are just plain out wrong.

Personally, I don't see how filling your lungs with hot smoke wouldn't be harmful yet people rarely feel that way or make that connection when they talk about marijuana. So, I have to wonder - bottom line - about genetic pre-dispositions to cancer. Are some people hair-trigger loaded to come down with lung cancer if they're exposed to lots of smoke, a little smoke or no smoke at all? It would explain why some people smoke all their lives and suffer not at all while others don't smoke and suffer respiratory disorders. It would also explain why Asians (Chinese and Japanese smoke all the time) don't have the same rate of lung cancer deaths that Americans do.

Look At It This Way
Perhaps a case can be made for the emotional response to smokers being just another example of Political Correctness. I don't smoke, I never smoked and, with the current price of cigarettes, I don't plan to start. Furthermore, I'd prefer that people around me didn't smoke. However, I'd be less than honest if I said that I was sure my aversion to second-hand smoke was based on anything more than a personal bias. And if tomorrow they come for smokers, why should I care? I'm not a smoker.