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Stogie Commentary: The Dirty Details of Smoking Data

13 Oct 2010

The other day, the IPCPR sent out a newsletter pointing to an article that questioned studies citing declines in heart attacks as a result of smoking bans in Scotland and Wales. According to this article, the heart-attack data was cherry-picked, and a thorough examination didn’t lead to the same conclusions.

Junk ScienceI was reminded of my latest, frustrating efforts to dig into a report earlier this year that was used to assert that cigar and pipe smokers inhaled. Since this runs counter to my own experiences as a current cigar smoker and former cigarette smoker, I wanted to know more.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that, when it comes to presenting information, the devil (or is it God? I’ve never gotten that straight) is in the details. Ever wonder how polls on the prospects of two candidates can be so different? Try looking at who they questioned (Likely voters? Registered voters?). Would you be concerned if I told you an activity in which you engage doubles your risk of death? Probably. But if I told you that activity would increase your chances of dying from one in a thousand to two in a thousand, would your reaction be the same?

When it comes to smoking, a classic example can be found in reports of teenage cigarette use. The figure you’ll often see from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that about 20% of high school students are cigarette smokers. Of course, that depends on what the definition of “is” is. The CDC defines “current cigarette use” as having smoked “on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey.” To me, at least, one cigarette a month is a pretty low threshold and not what the average person generally thinks of as a cigarette smoker.

So I was most curious about the inhalation study. I had numerous questions before and after I read the report in Annals of Internal Medicine. They were, I thought, fairly simple and important questions, such as whether the subjects smoked machine-made or premium cigars, and how many cigars the cigar-only smokers smoked per day or week.

Unfortunately, I never got any answers. Limiting my inquiries to just a few, I emailed several of the authors without success and engaged in a lengthy electronic correspondence with a staffer at the publisher’s office. She tried to get some answers but ultimately failed.

Now, I don‘t believe in conspiracies. I have a healthy respect and belief in science and the scientific method. More often than not, I’ve found the biggest impediment not to be ideology or mischief, but ego. Whether it’s politicians, scientists, corporate executives or any of dozens of other professions (yes, including journalism), people are too frequently defensive and dismissive when questioned. And when the topics are highly charged, as is the case with tobacco use, the walls can go up faster and higher.

All of which is a real shame. Because I’m also a firm believer that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And that kind of light doesn’t even cause dangerous sunburn.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Drew Estate

3 Responses to “Stogie Commentary: The Dirty Details of Smoking Data”

  1. Nick M. Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    George,

    Well put. I'm 29 and a former cigarette smoker myself and I've been smoking six cigars per week since I quit one year ago yesterday. The day off keeps the old lady happy. I'd be willing to wager that most of the people who lump cigars and cigarretes into one category would also pair Chopin and Marilyn Manson under the demonic umbrella of music. In the age of hand sanitizers I couldn't agree more. Sunlight trumps Purell in my book as well. I might just start to refer to my cigars as vein in the forehead suppressants. In my opinion, everyone should sit down for an hour or two every day, stogie or not, and just RELAX!!!! Study that.

  2. Ashy Larry Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 5:02 am #

    Excellent article. This is the sort of stuff I've grown to expect from the Stogie Guys.

    I particularly like your point about ego getting in the way of truth. All, especially those who (justly or unjustly) wield power over others, need to practice humility.

  3. Marc E Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 7:42 am #

    Well written. Thank you for this!