Junk Science, #5: The Secondhand Smoke fraud – Enstrom Kabat

cartoon cute girl smoking

In an all-out effort to vilify smokers, the anti-smoking industry churns out reams junk science; studies which can “prove” whatever they set out to “prove.” But sometimes, they make the mistake of hiring researchers who are actually honest. (NOTE: We call it an ‘industry’ because it makes a lot of money – not because they actually produce anything of value).

The American Cancer Society (more on them in future posts) initiated one of the largest studies ever conducted on secondhand smoke in 1959 with a one-million dollar startup fund. The study was additionally supported by the anti-smoking Tobacco Related Disease Research Program.

Researchers James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat surveyed 118,094 Californians between 1960 and 1998 in an effort to determine if secondhand smoke exposure was a factor in nonsmokers’ contraction of lung cancer and heart disease. Anti-smokers themselves, the pair actually wanted to prove beyond doubt that secondhand smoke was deadly.

By 1999, the pair had collected decades of solid data, but there was a problem: it was becoming apparent that exposure to secondhand smoke, no matter how intense or prolonged, did not significantly elevate risk of lung cancer, heart disease, or COPD in those exposed.

At this point, things took a turn. Enstrom and Kabat were strongly urged to suppress their data, and funding for the project abruptly dried up. Not wanting to end the study prematurely, the pair had no choice but to reluctantly allow funding for the tail end of the study to be provided by the Center for Indoor Air Research–a group supported by the tobacco industry.

Regardless, the British Medical Journal found the methodology of the entire study sound upon its completion, and allowed it to be published in 2003. According to Richard Smith, the BMJ’s editor:

“Not long ago I was something of a hero of the antitobacco movement–because I resigned my professorship at Nottingham University when it accepted money from British American Tobacco…now I’m a pariah for publishing a piece of research ‘funded by the tobacco industry.'”

Though staunch anti-smokers themselves, Enstrom and Kabat were also principled, and refused to back down when it became apparent that secondhand smoke did not pose mortal danger to nonsmokers. Because of this, the pair was subjected to a barrage of personal attacks and unfounded insinuations of dishonesty from the anti-smoking movement. They’d started out wanting to prove secondhand smoke was deadly, but the results of their study just didn’t show a link. And so they became “the enemy.”

Despite being one of the most (if not THE most) extensive study on the subject to date (in both length and number of participants), the study was automatically dismissed by anti-smokers because it was “funded by big tobacco.” Even though decades of data had shown no significant risk increase before the authors were forced to switch funding sources. Had it not received this additional funding, it would never have been completed, or published.

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