Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Barking up the wrong addiction

[Ed. - It's been a while since I have done it, so I thought I would post my column from this week's edition of the paper. Since we have gone to paid online subscriptions opinions are no longer available at the free site, but I will still occasionally post those columns here. This week's is on a subject near and dear...anti-smoking hysteria.]

With most behaviors society considers hazardous efforts are made to adjust bad habits. Driving is dangerous so wear your seat belt. AIDS kills so use protection. Sound reasonable? For some reason though, when it comes to nicotine, society insists on a zero-tolerance policy proving ineffective.

That topic was recently explored by epidemiologist Philip Alcabes. Despite piles of money spent, only 4 to 5% of smokers quit annually. That is roughly 2 million quitters, while a million will start smoking in the same year. After 40 years of stop smoking efforts, it is a dismal outcome.

Judging from results of recent data on local substance abuse by teens, our obsession with smoking is having a negative effect as well. While 95% believe smoking is a moderate to great health risk, only 43% of sixth graders attribute that risk to alcohol. That number will drop to 35% by 12th grade. Considering that societal affects of alcohol abuse far outweigh those of smoking, it makes one wonder if we haven’t been barking up the wrong addiction.

Robert Levy and Rosalind Marimont showed in 1998 that, outside factors removed, the risk of dying prematurely (before age 75) from smoking related illness is 1 in 12. Not a healthy choice, to be sure, but also not a sure path to early demise.

Risks from second-hand smoke have also been exaggerated. The accepted risk factor for second-hand smoke is 1.19. Epidemiologists generally dismiss anything less than 1.3 as random, otherwise known as not noteworthy. The British Medical Journal has stated, “the commonly reported 30 percent increase in heart disease highly implausible.” The EPA had its “benchmark” study struck down by a federal court in ‘98 for torturing data and deliberately misleading the public about second-hand smoke. Among other things, said the court, the EPA “adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency’s public conclusion.”

Oh, but the health care costs are astronomical says the anti-smoking lobby. Not so says Harvard’s Kip Viscusi, who has shown that smokers pay more in taxes than the costs of the habit to society.

In the end it is smoke, not nicotine, that is a hazard. Yet, instead of offering safe smokeless alternatives society has decided nicotine must be eradicated. The cost of that hysteria is proving expensive in new ways, as our youth remain dangerously unaware of the affects of far more destructive addictions.

As a smoker I can guarantee my habit will never cause me to – beat my children, kill a family with my car, get a fatal STD, cause an unwanted pregnancy, be raped – to say nothing of long-term health affects. Alcohol is responsible for all this plus generations of fallout that many families never overcome at a toll impossible to measure. Yet only 35% of 12th graders see alcohol as risky.

A question: How many parents out there are worried their son or daughter will smoke during the plethora of upcoming graduation parties? That’s what I thought.

Attitudes toward smoking and alcohol prove that teens do what we say, and what we do not. Maybe it’s time to start adjusting our priorities.

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