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Stogie Commentary: Risk Is Where You Find It

16 Mar 2009

Last month, Patrick S wrote a most interesting article on junk science. If you haven’t read it, you should take a few minutes and do so; it’ll  get you thinking.

That commentary prompted me to wonder about the related issue of risk. I find it fascinating how we perceive risk, how we deal with it, interpret it, and how we so often disregard it. So many factors play a part it’s impossible to generalize. But I think a large part is our general mathematical ignorance and our faith in what we think we know despite the evidence.

RiskOne recent example is a study that found exposure to secondhand smoke could double the likelihood of suffering from depression. Could be. Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. It’s impossible to tell without a reference point, such as the general rate for depression.

No stories I saw provided that, which isn’t surprising since my cursory checks indicate authorities tend to disagree on the U.S. rate. For adults, many reports put it somewhere between 5-6% during a year. That’s roughly 1 in 18. Double it you’ve got 1 in 9. Sure, it’s greater, but I’ll guarantee you that isn’t how most people react when they hear “double.” If the change was reported as going from about 1 in 20 to about 1 in 10, would that sound as alarming?

Similarly, we don’t tend to associate high risk with things we’re comfortable with. Otherwise, why would we be willing to risk consuming so much rodent hair, excretion, insect parts, mold, maggots, and other disgusting things in what we eat and drink every day? Just take a spin through the FDA’s “Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods that Present No Health Hazards for Humans.” Commenting in the New York Times, an op-ed writer noted “you’re probably ingesting one to two pounds of flies, maggots, and mites each year without knowing it.”

The cause of the risk is also important to the way we see it. And this is where we get closer to tobacco. First, though, detour to a substance nearly everyone would agree is more dangerous: crack cocaine. It’s been viewed as so dangerous, in fact, women have been imprisoned for using it while pregnant in the belief they were subjecting their babies to extreme risk. Now scientists who’ve actually studied the children as they grew report the impact “on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small,” according to the Times. The director of a major study said that while there are differences, “Are they big? No.”

Some things, I guess, can’t just be risky; they’ve got to be life-threatening.

We deal with risk and chance all the time. Some exploit it, some exaggerate it, some minimize it, and many don’t really understand it. That’s why we’re often so amazed with such statements as, “The odds are nearly 200 times greater you will die from flesh-eating bacteria (1 in 1 million) than you will win the Powerball lottery (1 in 200 million).”

Me, I’m getting ready to light up a 601 Red Robusto, and I know the risk of not enjoying it is very, very small.

George E

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10 Responses to “Stogie Commentary: Risk Is Where You Find It”

  1. rob c Monday, March 16, 2009 at 3:27 am #

    Great article. Couldn't agree more. I'm in a risk based profession and can tell you people are very strange when it comes to risk in their life

  2. Mac and Nudo Monday, March 16, 2009 at 3:51 am #

    The riskiest thing most of us do every day is drive to and from work. And many of us eat unbalanced diets that are too heavy in fat and cholesterol.

    Yet tobacco has become THE lightning rod for health fanatics’ criticisms. Why? I have to imagine because many of these nanny-staters would simply like to live in a world where everyone has to obey their preferences.

    Secondhand smoke? Puh-lease. That’s the last thing you should be worried about if you already spend all your time sitting around in bars…

  3. George E. Monday, March 16, 2009 at 5:03 am #

    Also, a critical factor that is often ignored when people look at risk is applicability. For example, whatever the odds of dying while on a motorcycle, if you never get on one, your odds are zero.

  4. Robert Monday, March 16, 2009 at 5:37 am #

    Good article. Sorry if this post rambles a bit. I was just thinking about this issue a couple weeks ago. I started reading up on the health risks of smoking, looking for info on cigarettes versus cigars. The funny thing to me was how low the risk of cancer…from cigarette smoking!

    The way our society presents it (health care institutions, media, teachers, politicians, attitudes, perceptions, etc.) you'd think it was a 50-50 coin flip or better chance of getting cancer from smoking. I guess saying "you're twice as likely as a non-smoker" doesn't sound quite as powerful when you hear the low percentages associated with that are. Yeah, it's still higher, and it's definitely a risk, and there are other non-cancer health risks, but it's not quite as shocking if all the numbers are presented. And when you add to that the junk science aspect of those studies and findings, you really have to wonder what the actual risk is.

    I'm willing to bet that Big Mac and fries once a week, the lunches our schools feed our kids, and those double lattes every morning are far greater health risks, but right now it's easier to attack smoking as the cause of perceived problems. I've come to see this as something more than a "nanny stater" issue. It's not just a political issue. It's bigger than that. It's some sort of collective delusion whereby people are scapegoating one vice for all the ills of our society. Between this and "drunk driving" we've found our 21st century witches.

  5. Patrick S Monday, March 16, 2009 at 5:51 am #


    An great look at the issue of risk and how people (particularly anti-tobacco advocates) use it to push their point of view.

    Directly on point with this article is the book Smoking: Making the Risky Decision. It makes the point that in fact smokers actually overestimate the risks of smoking.

    So when it comes to deciding whether the rewards outweigh the risks, most smokers are already biased against smoking… but you wouldn't know it from the way the anti-tobacco forces present it.

  6. Patrick M Monday, March 16, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    An interesting tie in to this idea was posted on a forum board that I read in relation to SCHIP. Saying that they are taxing something (tobacco) that doesn't even impact the majority of individuals that SCHIP is "helping". A 1 cent tax on every item sold at a fast food establishment would be a better target of the tax since fast food is a bigger detriment to the health of the children that SCHIP is supposed to help.

  7. CWS Monday, March 16, 2009 at 10:00 am #

    I'm smoking my cigars for the health of kids every where . . . and yes, a tax on fast food would be fitting.

  8. jake Monday, March 16, 2009 at 5:58 pm #

    In my personal opinion, While it is important to make junk science known to be junk, it is also very important to not become the other side of the spectrum. I doubt anyone would say that smoking brings a net health benefit. When someone becomes the polar opposite of an anti-smoking group, then they are just as bad.

    I think that the best argument for reduced taxes on tobacco is, and should be, that it is an individuals choice to do whatever they deem fit.

  9. cigarfan Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 7:10 pm #

    Lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Mark Twain said. I used to work in a building with a psychiatrist's office in it. I think about 85% of the people who went into that office were cigarette smokers. They would stand outside the door, waiting for their names to be called, smoking and flinging butts into parking lot. So what does this correlation mean? Did they smoke because they were mentally afflicted, or did smoking cause their affliction?

    And now that I think about it, I don't recall ever seeing a cigar smoker outside that office. I just had an idea for a study. Where's my earmark??

  10. Mina Petrauskas Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    An increasing body of universities analysis implies that video gaming strengthens creativity, decision-making and understanding. The certain benefits are extensive being available, from better hand-eye coordination in surgeons to imagination changes that enhance evening driving a car potential.People who performed action-based video and computer video games conducted decisions 25% speedier compared to other people without losing accuracy, based on a study. Without a doubt, the most proficient game players could make choices and act upon them up to six instances a second—four times quicker compared to most people, other experts discovered. Furthermore, practiced online game gamers have the ability to pay focus to more than 6 things at the same time without being stressed, as compared to the 4 that an individual can generally bear in mind, stated University of Rochester experts. The tests were executed independently of the companies that advertise video and computer video games