Several years ago I was talking to an epidemiologist who is skeptical of the idea that smokers pose a mortal threat to people in their vicinity. Although he supported workplace smoking bans, he was frustrated by the willingness of so many anti-tobacco activists and public health officials to overlook or minimize the weakness of the scientific case that secondhand smoke causes fatal illnesses such as lung cancer and heart disease. He wondered when it would be possible to have a calm, rational discussion of the issue, one in which skeptics would not be automatically dismissed as tools of the tobacco industry. I suggested that such a conversation might take place once smoking bans became ubiquitous, at which point the political stakes would be lower. Judging from a recent article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, headlined “No Clear Link Between Passive Smoking and Lung Cancer,” that conversation may have begun.
The article describes a large prospective study that “confirmed a strong association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer but found no link between the disease and secondhand smoke.” The study tracked more than 76,000 women, 901 of whom eventually developed lung cancer. Although “the incidence of lung cancer was 13 times higher in current smokers and four times higher in former smokers than in never-smokers,” says the JNCI article, there was no statistically significant association between reported exposure to secondhand smoke and subsequent development of lung cancer…
This is what I knew from the get-go: it was always nonsense to think that second hand smoke was a huge killer – or even a risk, at all. Certainly no more of a risk than going outside on a smoggy day in Los Angeles and just breathing. The amount of tobacco smoke a person would inhale via second hand smoke – even if they lived with a smoker – would be so tiny as to be inconsequential as a health risk. Remember, even for very heavy smokers, not all of them get lung cancer – smoking increases the risk of cancer, but it isn’t a 1 for 1 thing. If you smoke, it doesn’t mean that smoking will kill you.
Hopefully this will open up a debate – and get us away from the idiot idea that smoking is some sort of massively hideous thing which needs to be banned. Smoking is just a thing you can do – like eating cheeseburgers or having a coke. Not the healthiest choice. Not something any doctor would recommend, but it is something to do – for pleasure. You know, to enjoy life. Probably be better if all of us smokers ditched the cigarettes and switched over to pipes as we’d probably end up smoking far less (and mostly smoking much higher quality tobacco), but its still just one of the pleasures of life that someone may engage in. And like all things in life, there is a risk involved. Of course, the rule is, “eat right, exercise, die anyway”. Main thing to remember about life is that no one gets out of it alive. At some point certain, in a more or less painful manner, we will all exit this world. And if before I go I can have a smoke, that’ll make it more pleasant than going, as I must, without a smoke.