Health Blog

Put that out!

Secondhand smoke causes problems...but how serious are they?

November 29, 2007

There was coverage on some news websites yesterday about a report given at the last meeting of Radiological Society of North America showing MRI images of the lungs of people exposed to second hand tobacco smoke.

The report abstract is short, but it is joined by a press release that makes some strong claims – the most important being that the study results show that secondhand smoke damages the lungs.

At the same time, the news coverage cites variable numbers of participants in the study (either 58 or 60), and describes the results inconsistently. The RSNA press release meanwhile mentions a completely different participant number (43) than the report’s abstract (38).

There have been many studies showing the deleterious health effects of secondhand smoke inhalation over the years, and the science is certainly strong enough to fuel the smoking bans that have been put in place across the U.S. Even pets are suffering.

But there have been some studies showing the opposite as well. And recently also some upsetting evidence that the data put forward by anti-tobacco organizations about some of the dangers of secondhand smoke might be completely false. I thought it was the cigarette companies that were supposed to be dishonest. Oy.

I quit smoking on Tax Day this year, which was almost 8 months ago, and cigarettes are just not on my plate anymore, though I guess they’re on my mind. Frankly I don’t want smoke in my face any more than anyone else these days.

Clearly, secondhand smoke causes health problems. The questions are what kind, to what degree, and in whom? The relative risk of health problems for people with second hand exposure cited in most studies is only around 1.3 (a relative risk of 1 is no risk). By contrast, the relative risk for lung cancer in male smokers is 23, according to the American Cancer Society.

So I wonder how these MRI results fit into all of this. The report seemed much too opaque to me to merit definitive news treatment within the secondhand-smoke-hurts-you category. But the work is interesting and clearly important.

With more data, and honesty from environmental health advocates, maybe we can pin down more certainly how tobacco smoke is affecting all of us non-smokers.

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