Public Health

If You Can Smell It, It May Be Killing You

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Maverick anti-smoking activist Michael Siegel has published an article in the journal Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations in which he faults the tobacco control movement for misrepresenting the acute cardiovascular effects of exposure to secondhand smoke. Siegel, who supports government-imposed smoking bans in workplaces and agrees with his fellow activists that long-term exposure to secondhand smoke raises the risk of heart disease, criticizes them on his tobacco policy blog for claiming that even transient exposure might kill you. The journal article (which is available for free) gathers together some of the more egregious misrepresentations and explains why they are inconsistent with the scientific evidence. A sampling of the whoppers:

"Breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly. For example, the Centers for Disease Controls [CDC] has warned that breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes (less than the time one might be exposed outdoors on a beach, sitting on a park bench, listening to a concert in a park, etc.) can raise a nonsmoker's risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker." [Action on Smoking and Health]

"After twenty minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke, a nonsmoker's blood platelets become as sticky as a smoker's, reducing the ability of the heart to pump and putting a nonsmoker at an elevated risk of heart attack." [SmokeFree Ohio]

"Just 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can greatly increase your risk of heart attack." [New York City Department of Health]

"Even a half hour of secondhand smoke exposure causes heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers." [Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights]

Siegel worries that "the dissemination of inaccurate information by anti-smoking groups…may harm the tobacco control movement by undermining its credibility, reputation, and effectiveness." He also argues that lying about health hazards "represents a violation of basic ethical principles that are a core value of public health practice [and] that cannot and should not be sacrificed, even for a noble end such as protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure." 

The headline of this post, by the way, appeared on a New York City subway ad sponsored by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free City back in the '90s. Although this sort of scaremongering has been going on for a while, the more recent examples decried by Siegel often include numbers, appeals to authority, and inapposite journal citations that enhance their pseudoscientific patina.