Study denies link between secondhand smoke, disease

Tobacco-industry funding brings criticism of work

May 16, 2003|By Rosie Mestel | Rosie Mestel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Secondhand smoke does not appear to increase the risk for lung cancer and heart disease, says a study in the British Medical Journal that was partly funded by the tobacco industry.

The study was quickly criticized by the American Cancer Society and other health groups as misleading and unreliable.

"We are appalled that the tobacco industry has succeeded in giving visibility to a study with so many problems it literally failed to get a government grant," said Dr. Michael J. Thun, the society's national vice president of epidemiology. "This study is neither reliable nor independent."

The lead author, epidemiologist James Enstrom of the University of California, Los Angeles' School of Public Health, said that his findings were solid and that the tobacco industry had no influence. "There should at least be a re-examination of some of the previous summaries of the data to incorporate these findings," he said.

Enstrom and co-author Geoffrey C. Kabat of the State University of New York in Stony Brook reviewed data for 118,094 Californians who had enrolled in an American Cancer Society cancer prevention study in 1959. The Californians were a subset of the participants in the original study, which recruited people in 25 states.

Enstrom and Kabat focused their work on 35,561 people who had never smoked but had spouses who did. The scientists reviewed the histories of the participants from 1960 to 1998 and found no significant increase in their death rate for coronary heart disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

But the study contradicted the conclusions of a variety of studies. The World Health Organization and other health agencies have concluded that secondhand smoke carries heightened risk for such diseases, on the order of a 20 percent increased risk for lung cancer and a 30 percent increase for heart disease. The American Cancer Society and several scientists said the study was flawed in several ways. For instance, the study examined only 10 percent of the people originally enrolled in the American Cancer Society study. Additionally, in the early years of the study, people were exposed to secondhand smoke in many other places than the home, such as movie theaters, restaurants and the workplace. This would have the effect of dwarfing the effects of secondhand smoke in the home.

Rosie Mestel writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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