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Second-Hand Smokescreens

World No-Tobacco Day 2001 was yesterday. Sponsored by the World Health Organization, the theme was secondhand smoke. The event’s poster featured “Secondhand Smoke Kills” emblazoned over a photo of the Marlboro Man riding into the sunset.

WHO proclaimed, “Second-hand smoke is a real and significant threat to public health. Supported by two decades of evidence, the scientific community now agrees that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke… The evidence is in, let is act on it.”

That’s quite an ironic statement, though. It appears the WHO doesn’t even put much faith in its own research on secondhand smoke.

The WHO’s World No-Tobacco day web site lists, “Comprehensive Reports on Passive Smoking by Authoritative Scientific Bodies.” The listed reports include the 1986 reports from the Surgeon General and National Research Council, the 1993 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and two late-1990s reports from the California EPA.

For those unfamiliar with the reports, the list appears formidable. Otherwise, it’s just disingenuous.

The 1986 reports by the NRC and Surgeon General concluded secondhand smoke was a risk factor for lung cancer. But of the 13 studies reviewed, 7 reported no link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Given the statistical nature of these studies, this split in results is precisely what one would expect if no true link existed.

Neither report produced much progress for anti-smoking activists. So they convinced the EPA to pick up the gauntlet.

Thirty-three studies on secondhand smoke had been completed by 1993. More than 80 percent of the studies reported no association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, including the largest of the studies. The EPA reviewed 31 studies - inexplicably omitting two studies reporting no association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer - and estimated secondhand smoke caused 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually.

Under the stewardship of the anti-tobacco Clinton administration, secondhand smoke hysteria caught fire.

Observing the “success” of the EPA report, the California EPA adopted by reference the EPA’s conclusions into the state agency’s own report. Little original or independent analysis went into the Cal-EPA report.

Just when it seemed anti-smoking activists finally succeeded in producing scientific reports establishing secondhand smoke as a health risk, a federal judge overturned the EPA report in 1998. He ruled the EPA cheated on the science.

Later in 1998, the WHO published the largest study ever done on secondhand smoke and lung cancer. The study reported no statistically significant association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Oops.

Now let’s go back to the WHO’s list of reports on its web page.

The 1986 reports don’t carry any weight. That’s why the EPA did a new report. But the EPA report was in all important respects trashed by a federal judge - by implication, a fate also deserved of the California report that relied on the EPA report.

And the WHO omitted its own report from the list of “comprehensive reports” by “authoritative scientific bodies”   no doubt because the “wrong” answer was reported.

If secondhand smoke really increases lung cancer risk, why all the smoke-and-mirrors?

Of course, lung cancer is not the only health alarm sounded about secondhand smoke. The science on these issues is also not as it’s hyped.

The WHO claims secondhand smoke causes between 35,000 to 62,000 deaths from heart disease annually in the U.S. But the WHO omits mention of an important New England Journal of Medicine editorial on the controversy.

University of Chicago Hospital health studies chairman John Bailar - hardly sympathetic to the tobacco industry - dismissed the link between secondhand smoke and heart disease, citing the poor quality of study data and evident researcher bias.  

WHO claims, “Second-hand smoke also causes and aggravates asthma and other breathing problems, particularly in children. It is also an important cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).”

But researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examining data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveyreported in January’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine there was no association between secondhand smoke and asthma among 5,400 children aged 4 to 16 years of age.

No one knows what causes SIDS. Just this week, Wake Forest University researchers reported SIDS may be related to a genetic deficiency. Reportedly, the absence of a particular muscle enzyme allows fatty acid products to accumulate, producing a toxic effect causing heart arrhythmias and respiratory arrest.

Anti-smoking activists have yet to explain where were all the childhood asthma and SIDS cases in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when smoking indoors was commonplace and adult smoking rates were much higher than they are now.

Secondhand smoke is annoying to many nonsmokers. That is the essence of the controversy and where the debate should lie - the rights of smokers to smoke in public places versus the rights of nonsmokers to be free of tobacco smoke.

In debates over individual liberties, fabricated and propagandized science should play no role.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001). Mr. Milloy may be reached at milloy@cais.com.