I could only laugh last April when I first heard about a study claiming that a smoking ban in Helena, Mont., cut the city’s heart attack rate by 58 percent in six months.
A prominent op-ed in this week’s Oct. 15 New York Times hailed the Miracle of Helena (search) and urged readers to give it more credit than it deserves.
Citizens of Helena voted in June 2002 to ban smoking in all public buildings, including restaurants, bars and casinos. Doctors at the local hospital soon “noticed,” according to the op-ed, that heart attack admissions had dropped.
Six months later, the ban was rescinded. Heart attack rates allegedly then rebounded to pre-ban levels.
The bottom line is, “Secondhand smoke kills,” according to the op-ed.
That would certainly seem to be a reasonable interpretation -- if all you did was read and believe the op-ed. But, of course, my inquiring mind had a few questions to ask before coming to a “case-closed” conclusion on the Miracle of Helena.
First, the study isn’t easy to evaluate -- but not because it’s rocket science. There simply is no study to evaluate.
The results were issued in typical junk science style via a quick-and-dirty slideshow presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology (search). Six months later, the study still is not available to the public.
Slick junk scientists often choose the “science-by-press conference” mode of releasing results because they know their immediate audience likely will not be able to ask probing questions -- a tough thing to do when only sketchy details are hurriedly presented to people with no familiarity of the research conducted.
Even so, anyone paying attention at the presentation should have picked up on the rather obvious problem with the supposed Miracle of Helena.
Assuming the study information presented is accurate, fewer heart attacks seem to have occurred during the six months of the smoking ban.
But a similar short-lived dip in heart attacks rates also occurred in Helena four years earlier in 1998. If whatever caused the 1998 dip happened again in 2002, the Miracle of Helena is really the Mirage of Helena.
I talked to one of researchers about that simple observation. After stumbling and stammering for an explanation, he finally referred me to the “study’s statistician,” Dr. Stan Glantz (search) (more on him later) -- as if some statistical mumbo-jumbo would credibly explain why the 1998 dip in heart attack rates was just an anomaly but the 2002 dip was definitely due to the smoking ban.
Another glaring problem is the researchers’ failure to study any pre- or post-ban patients to medically determine the causes of the reported heart attacks. Given all the genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that combine to cause heart attacks, it is quite bogus to attribute them to secondhand smoke, especially without examining any patients.
But why let conflicting data and insufficient data get in the way of a politically correct conclusion?
I’m almost surprised that anyone is still trying to link secondhand smoke (search) with heart disease. The University of Chicago’s Dr. John Bailar -- no friend of the tobacco industry-- published in the March 25, 1999, New England Journal of Medicine his quite devastating analysis of the alleged link between secondhand smoke and heart disease.
On the other hand, I’m not surprised to see Stan Glantz’s involvement in the Mirage of Helena.
Glantz’s colleague on the Helena study tried to pass him off to me as “professor of statistics.” But I know better. I’ve observed Glantz for some time. I’ve debated him on the radio. He’s a shameless say-anything, do-anything anti-smoking zealot.
Glantz has a Ph.D. in applied mechanics and engineering economic systems -- whatever that is, it is not statistics. He’s the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education (search) at the University of California, San Francisco. He’s funded by the federal government to attack the tobacco industry. The National Cancer Institute, for example, gave Glantz $600,000 to “study” tobacco industry lobbying on the state level.
Just what kind of cancer research is that?
It’s been about six months since New York City’s smoking ban went into effect. I asked Dr. Glantz’s colleague if he would be studying whether the NYC smoking ban experience confirmed or contradicted his Helena study claims.
He mumbled something about such a study being too difficult because of all the data involved.
But I can see where anti-tobacco researchers wouldn’t want to have too much data. It just might clear up the smoke they’re blowing in our eyes.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).