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Commentary: Bacon, Tobacco, Cancer, and Politicized Science

27 Oct 2015

bacon

If you’re like me, the last few days on Facebook you’ve seen a lot online about how bacon can cause cancer and is just as dangerous as smoking. (Maybe it’s just that a lot of my friends are fans of bacon, tobacco, or both.)

It’s a perfect story to go viral with a headline designed to scare. A modern version of: “It kills thousands of people every year, and you give it to your children every day… tonight at 10.” (It’s just water.)

Unfortunately, it’s a also a perfect example of bad government science and the bad journalism that perpetuates it. Like stories that deal with cancer and tobacco, it leaves out critical context.

The gist of the story is that smoked meats, like bacon and hot dogs, can be carcinogenic, meaning they can cause cancer in humans. That may be true in a technical sense, but it tells readers almost nothing about the risk that bacon poses, or the risk they actually face from eating bacon.

In truth, while bacon may be carcinogenic, eating lots of bacon adds only very slightly to someone’s overall risk of cancer. Drill down on the “bacon causes cancer” headline and you’ll find that if you eat a serving of smoked meat (one hot dog or two strips of bacon, for example) daily over your lifetime (which is quite a lot), the odds of you getting colorectal cancer, which bacon contributes to, goes up only 0.8 percent.

But “daily bacon increases relative risk of cancer by slightly less than one percent” doesn’t quite have a ring to it. Instead, we’re simply told bacon can cause cancer, which while literally perhaps true is also pretty much meaningless as a statement. It does nothing to help consenting adults decide for themselves whether or not to order a side of bacon since it simplifies, and probably over-amplifies, the risk.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tobacco, and especially cigars, the critical issue of relative risk is ignored even more often. It remains the position of the U.S. government that “cigars contain the same toxic and carcinogenic compounds found in cigarettes and are not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”

Once again, that may be true in a technical sense. But the statement is also meaningless. Saying cigars contain the same chemicals as cigarettes doesn’t say anything about the relative risk of smoking cigars compared to smoking cigarettes, or how much of those chemicals each activity delivers in a way that can increase your risk. It’s the equivalent of saying driving the speed limit is not a safe alternative to speeding drunk because you can crash either way. (You can, of course, get in an accident either way, but obviously the risk of that happening isn’t the same in both cases.)

The fact is, the average cigar smoker who smokes cigars properly (without inhaling) is way better off than the average cigarette smoke, but our government can’t bring itself to say that because doing so would admit that with normal use cigar smoking is in fact less risky than smoking cigarettes. It would be nice if our government would be honest enough with us to say so. At least for now, though, Uncle Sam is unwilling to admit what we all know to be true.

Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

Drew Estate

3 Responses to “Commentary: Bacon, Tobacco, Cancer, and Politicized Science”

  1. George E. Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at 8:32 am #

    As Patrick notes, stories that report about risk rarely include the information necessary for a reader to adequately assess that risk, focusing instead on the percentage increase. Check the CDC’s own data http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/statistics/age.htm and you’ll see that the overall risk of colorectal cancer is low for those under 60 and rises only to between 3 or 4 men out of 100 getting it between the ages of 60 and 90.

    • Mike Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      True, but with cancer or any disease, when you extrapolate it over the whole population, it can have a major impact. 4 men out of 100 many get colon cancer by the time they’re 90, but I have relatives that survived it and know people who died. Individual risks may be low, but the WHO deals in nations and world populations.

      Headlines that said salami was as big a risk as smoking were not accurate. The WHO does not rank carcinogens; it only adds them to the list. They issued a press release clarifying that point yesterday.

  2. George E. Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    Mike – I’m only arguing for accurate information. Reporting that “X doubles your risk of getting some dread disease” without including the information that the risk under consideration is going from 1 in 100 to 2 in 100 creates vastly different impressions.

    We make decisions all the time, individually and societally, based on risk vs. reward. Sometimes it’s a rational decision, sometimes it is irrational. But without adequate information, it will certainly be an uninformed decision.