Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hyping Health Risks

From cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat's new book, "Hyping Health Risks ":

"Starting with the 1986 reports and especially with the 1992 EPA report, suggestive evidence of a possible slight increase in the risk of lung cancer was used to give teeth to legislation restricting smoking in public places. The fact that secondhand smoke is an irritant and an annoyance, that it is accociated with increased respiratory infections in infants, and that it exacerbates pre-existing asthma and other health conditions simply does not provide the same legal or regulatory clout as the claim that it causes fatal disease. This explains why it has been hard for scientific findings regarding secondhand smoke to be interpreted in a disinterested manner. To acknowledge that the data are weak -- as they would have to be, given the low concentration of ETS and the limitations of observational studies on this question -- has been anathema because this would deprive the antismoking movement of its most powerful weapon against the tobacco industry. The tactic of presenting massive amounts of data devoid of any critical framework for making sense of those data was meant to obscure this sleight of hand. In large part, scientists and regulators have relied on categorical pronouncements and on the inherent obscurity of the material to create an unassailable dogma. Who could possibly question the wisdom of such authorities as the U.S. Surgeon General, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Health Organization?"