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All those warnings you heard about secondhand smoke from your mother, federal government PSAs and school D.A.R.E. instructors? Bogus, a Fox Business host claimed recently.
In a discussion about waning personal freedom in the free world, pundit John Stossel went off about the onslaught of government rules and regulations telling Americans what they can do and when, where and how they can do it.
He used cigarette-smoking as an example, arguing that business owners should have the right to allow smoking in their bars or restaurants even where ordinances or laws ban the practice.
"Yeah, they kill smokers," Stossel said on Fox & Friends of cigarettes. "But there is no good data showing secondhand smoke kills people."
A Fox spokeswoman did not return our inquiry, and Stossel, who has long questioned the lethal nature of secondhand smoke, did not reply to emails and tweets. (The exchange in question was a follow-up to a Dec. 4 segment on his Thursday show, when he said, "the secondhand smoke scare turns out to be bunk. But the smokers still take it.")
Stossel’s definition of "good" might be different than ours, but there is plenty of scientific research and consensus that secondhand smoke does indeed kill people.
Secondhand smoke is a mixture of smoke emitted from the burning end of a cigarette or other tobacco products and what’s exhaled by smokers. It’s regarded as a cancer-causing agent, a "known human carcinogen" (a healthful classification, that is not).
The government has campaigned for tough anti-smoking policies in public places and workplaces as a way to protect Americans from secondhand smoke, saying there is no safe level of exposure. Reports from the country’s top doctors say these laws are reducing risk.
The U.S. surgeon general has released 31 reports about the effects of smoking since 1964. These reports are extremely detailed, summarizing the latest research on smoking and peer-reviewed by dozens of the nation’s top scientists.
Consensus on secondhand smoke really began to form in the 1980s, even as the tobacco industry’s"doubt-creation machine" spun opposing talking points, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, senior scientific editor of the 2014 surgeon general report and director of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Global Health.
The surgeon general’s 2006 report stated rather bluntly that inhaling secondhand smoke "causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease in nonsmoking adults." Involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke killed more than 49,000 nonsmokers in 2005, plus 430 newborns who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the report said.
In 2014, the acting surgeon general released a new report, one that factored in input from more than 80 contributing authors and 150 reviewers who are experts in medicine and public health. Secondhand smoke can also increase risk of stroke, the new report found. Beyond that, involuntary exposure poses significant problems for children, worsening asthma and leading to other respiratory conditions.
Since 1964, the report said, 2.46 million non-smokers have died from exposure to secondhand smoke.
How does the government calculate its numbers?
Scientists don’t keep a count of deaths by secondhand smoke as recorded in death certificates. (Death certificates don’t list "secondhand smoke" as a cause of death.) Instead, they rely on statistical methods used by epidemiologists, who are experts in disease patterns within populations. To figure out lung cancer deaths from secondhand smoke, for instance, the individual risk of lung cancer is analyzed next to the proportion of people exposed to secondhand smoke.
It’s a complicated statistical analysis (page 659 explains more), one with which Stossel obviously finds fault. But it’s not unusual. The same method is used to attribute the number of deaths from obesity through diabetes, for example, Samet said.
"This is the basic way to use to understand how the disease is exposed to this risk," Samet said. "We understand that there are uncertainties that go with this, but this is a very basic tool. ... The approach here is embedded in science and policy and understanding how much a disease is caused by something."
The surgeon general is not alone in major scientific organizations linking secondhand smoke with deadly diseases. There’s also the World Health Organization’s International Center for Research on Cancer, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Cancer Society, and the National Academy of Sciences.
"At this point, the evidence is firm and very powerful, and important conclusions have been reached," Samet said.
You can quibble over specific numbers since they’re approximations, said Gary Giovino, a professor of health behavior at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. But not that secondhand smoke kills, he said.
"Chronic exposure produces disease and death," Giovino said.
How do folks such as Stossel respond?
The libertarian Cato Institute published a response to the 2006 surgeon general’s report on secondhand smoke that highlighted testimony before a committee of the British Parliament by Oxford epidemiologist Richard Peto. Peto, who has studied the causes of cancer and the effects of smoking, testified that he could not quantify deaths from secondhand smoke because "these hazards cannot be directly measured." (The story was written by Gio Gori, an epidemiologist who wrote publications on behalf of the industry-backed Tobacco Institute refuting studies about nicotine’s harmful effects.)
Conversely, some scientists say the government is actually undercounting secondhand smoke-related deaths.
"The criticism … is not that they overestimate the risk, it’s that they’re underestimating it," said Stanton Glantz, a University of California San Francisco medicine professor and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
And dog lovers, beware: New evidence shows secondhand smoke can also kill pets, including lung and nasal cancer in dogs and malignant lymphoma in cats.
Stossel said "there is no good data showing secondhand smoke kills people."
His definition of good obviously differs with the vast majority of scientists and researchers studying the effects of secondhand smoke. They say the data does show that secondhand smoke kills people. And that the data is indeed solid.
Stossel’s claim rates False.
CDC, "The health consequences of smoking: 50 years of progress," January 2014
Phone interview with Dr. Jonathan Samet, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Global Health, Dec. 9, 2014
Email interview with Kenneth Warner, University of Michigan School of Public Health economist, Dec. 9, 2014
Interview with Gary Giovino, University at Buffalo, SUNY, Dec. 9, 2014
Interview with Stanton Glantz, University of California San Francisco professor of medicine, Dec. 10, 2014
Interview with Joel London, CDC Office on Smoking and Health spokesman, Dec. 5, 2014
Interview with Brittany Behm, CDC spokeswoman, Dec. 5, 2014
Interview with Jennifer Walsh, National Academies of Sciences spokeswoman, Dec. 10, 2014
Surgeon general report, "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke," 2006
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