NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Science Behind Second-Hand Smoke Theories

March 19, 1998

Antismoking crusaders are being accused of knowingly overstating the health risks of second-hand smoke. Critics charge antismoking lobbies are purposefully ignoring comprehensive studies which have found no link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer in nonsmokers.

  • Two weeks ago, the World Health Organization released a definitive study of passive smoke which could find no cancer risk at all.
  • Begun in 1988, the study seemed to detect a 16 percent to 17 percent greater risk from cigarette smoke -- but the researchers said the margin of error was so wide as to render the findings trivial to nonexistent.
  • Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency has publicly declared that 3,000 Americans die annually from inhaling secondhand tobacco smoke.
  • To back up its claim, the EPA pooled the results of 11 studies -- ten of which found no statistically significant risk.

Experts say such a pooling of data is highly unscientific. The studies were all different from each other in various ways, and they did not measure the same things.

Last October, the British Medical Journal published a similarly flawed study by a known antitobacco crusader which purported to find a 26 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer from secondhand smoke. But Robert Nilsson, a senior toxicologist at the Swedish National Chemicals Inspectorate and a professor of toxicology at Stockholm University, has dismissed the study as a "statistical trick" and full of biases.

Nilsson's most stinging criticism is leveled at the British Medical Journal's editorial board members, who he says must be "innocent of epidemiology" to have allowed publication of the paper in its existing form."

On such evidence, California imposed a total smoking ban in all public places, which took effect January 1. It was not the first jurisdiction to do so. Iran instituted such a ban in 1996 -- but it was overturned as unconstitutional.

Source: Lorraine Mooney (European Science and Environment Forum), Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1998.


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