Secondhand Smoke, Lung Cancer, and the Global Warming Debate

Published January 3, 2011

In 1993 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a report claiming secondhand smoke (SHS—also sometimes known as environmental tobacco smoke or ETS) causes 3,000 deaths from lung cancer every year in the United States. Anyone doubting this claim has been subject to attack and depicted as a toady of the tobacco lobby.

The tobacco smoking issue has also become a favorite tool for discrediting climate skeptics. A prime example is the book Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, which attacks several well-known senior physicists, including the late Dr. Fred Seitz, a former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Physical Society, and (most recently) Rockefeller University.

Vast Tobacco Conspiracy
No matter what the environmental issue—ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, etc.—any and all scientific opposition based on objective facts is blamed on an imagined involvement with tobacco companies. None of this is true, of course. Oreskes and Conway claim to be academic historians, yet they have consistently ignored factual information, have not bothered to consult primary sources, have never interviewed any of the scientists they try to smear, and generally have operated in a completely unprofessional way.

The ultimate aim of these attacks has been to discredit skeptics of similarly unsupported global warming fears. I am a nonsmoker, find SHS to be an irritant and unpleasant, have certainly not been paid by Philip Morris or the tobacco lobby, and have never joined any of their front organizations. I serve on the advisory board of an anti-smoking organization.

My father, who was a heavy smoker, died of emphysema while relatively young. I personally believe that SHS, in addition to being objectionable, cannot possibly be healthy. Yet people like Oreskes and Conway repeatedly try to divert attention from scientific facts by claiming I and other scientists who disagree with her on global warming are mere shills for tobacco companies.

EPA’s Flawed Science
So what is the truth about SHS and lung cancer? EPA fudged their analysis to reach a predetermined conclusion, using thoroughly dishonest procedures. EPA “scientists” made three major errors: (1) They ignored “publication bias.” (2) They arbitrarily shifted the statistical “confidence intervals.” (3) They drew unjustified conclusions from a risk ratio that was barely greater than 1.0.

Since none of the epidemiological studies provided the clear answer they wanted, the EPA carried out a “meta-analysis,” lumping together a selected group of studies. Unfortunately, this approach ignores publication bias, the tendency for investigators not to publish their studies if they do not find a positive result.

The EPA, in order to calculate a positive risk ratio, relaxed the confidence intervals from the generally accepted 95 percent standard to 90 percent—and admitted this openly.

Even so, their “risk ratio” was just a little above 1.0—whereas careful epidemiologists, because of the presence of confounding factors, generally ignore any result unless the risk ratio exceeds 2.0.

To sum up this somewhat technical discussion, I can state with some assurance that the EPA analysis—to paraphrase my former teacher, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli—is “not only wrong, but worthless.”

Many Studies Cast Doubt
My assessments are independently confirmed by the Congressional Research Service (in report CRS-95-1115) and by a lengthy judicial analysis in 1998 by Judge William Osteen, each of which is available on the internet. Science journalist Michael Fumento presented, in 1993, a well-researched and eminently readable account in Investors Business Daily.

In the largest (in terms of statistical power), most detailed (in terms of results presented), and most transparent (in terms of information about its conduct) epidemiologic paper on SHS and mortality ever published in a major medical journal (in the May 17, 2003 issue of the British Medical Journal), UCLA Prof. James Enstrom found no significant relationship between secondhand smoke and lung cancer.

It is worth noting also that the World Health Organization, in a just-completed study reported in the British medical journal Lancet, gives a lung-cancer death rate for the United States, Canada, and Cuba of barely six hundred per year, which is only a fraction of the number of deaths the politicized EPA claims occur in the U.S. alone.

An independent study, published in BioMed Central in 2010 and supported by the Canadian National Cancer Institute and Canada’s Cancer Society, found no noticeable lung-cancer effect from SHS in nonsmokers. Instead, the study found a significant effect from welding, use of paint thinners and solvents, and exposure to diesel exhaust, soot, and smoke from sources other than tobacco.

Afraid of Discussing Science
So what does this all mean? Wielding of the “tobacco weapon” regarding global warming or other scientific issues bespeaks the desperation of those who don’t have any valid scientific arguments and wish to avoid public debate.

The other issue is the conduct of science and the integrity of the science process. The corruption of science in a worthy cause is still corruption, and it has led to its further corruption in an unworthy cause—the ideologically driven claim of anthropogenic global warming.

Atmospheric physicist S. Fred Singer ([email protected]) is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, founding director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, and a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. A longer version of this article first appeared in The American Thinker. Published with author’s permission.