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TALLRITE BLOG 

This is a consolidation of six e-mails that Michael Mac Guinness sent me during November (whilst I was overseas), in response to my post in support of Ireland's proposed ban on smoking in public.  This included reference to a study in Helena, Montana purportedly showing a close correlation between a smoking ban and a reduction in heart attacks.  

Michael starts starts by chiding me for swallowing this study too readily  (I accept this !), and goes on to explain why he is skeptical about the scientific relationship between ETS and harm to health.  

Readers may make their own judgement.

ENVIRONMENTAL TOBACCO SMOKE

From: Michael Mac Guinness
Sent: 1st, 4th, 5th, 5th, 22nd, 28th November 2003 
Subject: ETS: Correlation, Causation and Helena, Montana

Reference your article on ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke) and the Helena, Montana study, Steven Milloy has made a dissection of the Helena study and includes a link to the slide presentation (pdf, 273 kb) of the study.  It appears that in this instance the authors may have been a little too quick to jump to a conclusion, forgetting that “correlation does not imply causation!”  See also here.

I have never smoked but have always been, and remain, extremely skeptical regarding the degree of risk attributed to ETS.  Unfortunately, in this area as in others, there is a lot of selective study and reporting by activists seeking to advance their agenda.  See a review of such studies here

My understanding (I’m an engineer, not an epidemiologist) is that the levels of increased risk of lung cancer the studies attribute to ETS (about 20%, adjusted risk ratio 1.2) is within a range where it could equally well be caused by other factors not controlled for.  I believe epidemiologists require an adjusted risk ratio of 2 before concluding that causation is demonstrated.  Since even the studies quoted by proponents of the smoking ban fall well below this threshold, the scientific basis for a ban is insufficiently solid to justify legislative action.

I have been dismayed, but not surprised, that all of the debate (in the media and for example the exchange between Frank at Internet Commentator and Gavin Gavin's Blog) on the passive smoking issue has uncritically or implicitly accepted the contention by proponents of the ban that the science is settled.

In fact, so far as I can determine, the science is far from settled. Studies funded by tobacco companies reporting no significant effect from ETS are routinely dismissed as biased. This may be true, however it is unproven - but see later discussion of bias in studies.

On  the other hand, an important component of the smoking ban proponent’s case, the US EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) 1992 525-page study, “ Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders”, EPA/600/6-90/006F (December 1992) was challenged in court (yes, by a tobacco company).  The challenge was successful in 1998.

The judge's findings are worth reading in full.  Key observations :

Rather than reach a conclusion after collecting information, researching, and making findings, EPA categorized ETS as a “known cause of cancer” in 1989. EPA, Indoor Air Facts No. 5 Environmental Tobacco Smoke, ANR-445 (June 1989) (JA 9,409-11).

In conducting the Assessment, EPA deemed it biologically plausible that ETS was a carcinogen. EPA’s theory was premised on the similarities between MS, SS, and ETS. In other chapters, the Agency used MS and ETS dissimilarities to justify methodology. Recognizing problems, EPA attempted to confirm the theory with epidemiologic studies. After choosing a portion of the studies, EPA did not find a statistically significant association. EPA then claimed the bioplausibility theory, renominated the a priori hypothesis, justified a more lenient methodology. With a new methodology, EPA demonstrated from the selected studies a very low relative risk for lung cancer based on ETS exposure. Based on its original theory and the weak evidence of association, EPA concluded the evidence showed a causal relationship between cancer and ETS. The administrative record contains glaring deficiencies

In this case, EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun; excluded industry by violating the Act’s procedural requirements; adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency’s public conclusion, ...”

An editorial in Investor’s Business Daily on 29 July 1998 summarises some of the findings. 

Having read the whole judgement (but not the original report), it is clear that whatever adjectives may be used to accurately describe the EPA’s report “scientific” is most certainly not one of them.  For some reason, the adjective “biased” comes to mind, but surely not.  After all, it was not funded by a tobacco company.  

As noted above, I have always been skeptical of the alleged hazard of passive smoking.  In  my reading, which extended to more than one website, as well as other issues I wanted to check out, I have come across no evidence that I found convincing.  The evidence that is available demonstrates conclusively that many issue-driven (ie not big tobacco or big oil) activists and researchers have few scruples about manipulating and selecting data to ensure their papers will support their pre-determined conclusions in order to advance their agenda, irrespective of truth. On controversial issues a healthy skepticism is in order, for bias is not solely the preserve of the black hats.

If the science is unproven and/or if, as in this case, one of the pillars supporting the case for taking legislative action is a fraud, then the policy and the legislation are indefensible.

I don’t like tobacco smoke but so long as it’s not blowing directly in my face I’m not bothered.  If they really want to ban something, my vote is ban vinegar.  The smell of it is revolting, I cannot abide it, it really does turn my stomach.

Here are a couple of other links that may be of some interest; plenty more if you do a site search for EPA and ETS: 

http://www.junkscience.com/news/sws/sws-chapter6.html  http://www.junkscience.com/news/euwsjets.htm

The 1998 ruling was, however, overturned on appeal in 2002.  But, as the author of Numberwatch writes: 

The appeals court did NOT overturn Judge Osteen’s findings that EPA had used deceptive science to support a policy on environmental tobacco smoke that it had adopted before it even began its study. It did not even address those issues. Instead the appeals court ruling focused only on whether the lower federal court had jurisdiction to review EPA actions in this matter and found that it did not.”

I’ve read the ruling in full.  Numberwatch’s statement is perfectly accurate.  

Meanwhile, to link to a page linking to a variety of studies, including the EPA’s and a rebuttal of the findings in the 1998 ruling, click on this here.

This last link is to the website of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education referred to by Steven Milloy in his rebuttal of the Montana report mentioned at the beginning of this message.  

It also links to the following article (pdf, 127 kb) Why Review Articles on the Health Effects of Passive Smoking Reach Different Conclusions” by Deborah E. Barnes, MPH; Lisa A. Bero, PhD JAMA, May 20, 1998—Vol 279, No. 19  

 

The principal conclusion of this article is that, after controlling for various factors, it finds that review articles written by authors with tobacco industry affiliations are 88 times more likely to conclude that passive smoking is not harmful. I’ve seen several reports about this article and reporting its conclusion.  

However, reading the article reveals a few interesting points:  

bullet

Mean article quality was 0.36, meaning that the average review article in the study satisfied only one third of the criteria used for quality assessment. Low quality was expected to correlate with a non-harmful conclusion, however it did not.  Mean quality scores overall were very low.

bullet

77% of articles failed to disclose sources of funding. Affiliation to the tobacco industry was determined indirectly by investigating the prior relationships of authors with tobacco-affiliated organisations. There was no investigation of other sources of funding, eg, anti-smoking advocacy organisations.

bullet

To support its conclusion regarding the influence of tobacco affiliation, the article quotes other studies that have found an association between conclusions of review articles and the affiliations of the authors. It appears to me that the authors may have a blind spot.  While they do note that it may have more general implications, it does not occur to them that author affiliation may also affect articles that conclude that passive smoking is harmful, and they do not examine this possibility.  In this context, the article itself was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose mission statement includes the following :  To reduce the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse — tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.”  A laudable objective, but perhaps it is not a totally neutral, impartial, disinterested entity in this area of research.   I find it notable that the authors found that the articles were generally of low quality regardless of the conclusion. 

As an engineer, I associate low quality with unreliability. I draw the conclusion from this article that research on passive smoking is generally of low quality, is potentially riddled with bias on both sides and is therefore utterly unreliable regardless of its conclusion. I cannot see how low quality research can lead to accurate, reliable results. 

I am astounded that the authors do not appear to consider the quality issue significant.    I haven’t had much time to do any more research on the issue but came across ActivistCash.com.  Serious money available for pro-activist research.  Accusing tobacco-affiliated researchers of bias looks more and more like the pot calling the kettle black.

I tried to find some hard numbers quantifying lung cancer rates in non smokers.  Googling turned up a huge variation with lung cancer rates among non-smoker anywhere between 4 and 27 times lower than smokers but I had no way of evaluating either the reliability of the data or its applicability to Ireland.

I did find the National Cancer Registry Ireland report (pdf, 165 kb) Cancer in Ireland 1994-2002 Incidence, Mortality, Treatment and Survival ”, but it doesn’t provide a breakdown of smoker and non-smoker lung cancer cases.  I could not find such a breakdown anywhere (in the limited time I’ve had).

Bottom line, the more I read, the more skeptical I become regarding the alleged dangers of passive smoking.  Case not proven.

Unfortunately, it’s become a crusade.

Regards,  

Michael Mac Guinness  

 

Addendum

Below are links are to 

bullet

the Office of Tobacco Control(OTC)/HSA report (pdf, 253 kb) on passive smoking dated December 2002 and 

bullet

P J Carroll's submission (pdf, 206 kb) dated 21 May 2003 to the HSA. 

The OTC/HSA report is basically a review and summarisation of the results of studies on passive smoking/ETS.  The referenced studies appear to have been taken at face value, there does not appear to have been any questioning of data quality or study methodologies or procedures.  And usually that's fair enough.  Normally there should be no reason to for this type of report.  However, although the report makes quite a few references to the EPA's 1992 report, there is no reference to the 1996 ruling vacating the report, nor to the scientific/technical criticisms of the report raised in the case and summarised in the judgement.  As a bare minimum, given that the OTC/HSA report is being used as a basis for legislative action and the EPA report's status as a keystone document, it would surely be a reasonable expectation that the OTC/HSA report would address the ruling and criticisms even if only in the form of acknowledgement and rebuttal.  It is a curious omission.

In terms of timing, the OTC/HSA report was prepared prior to conclusion of the EPA's appeal against to 1996 ruling.  Both were issued in December 2002.

The PJ Carroll submission is strongly critical of the OTC report.  People should read both, but I expect many will simply disregard a tobacco company's position as being irredeemably biased. 

I've had some thoughts on the issue of bias in studies.

Bias may be suspected, however, it can only be demonstrated by a thorough analysis of the conduct of the study including the data collection/selection process and the procedures and methodologies used in it.  Bias may exist, but the results may still stand up to critical scrutiny, or they may not.  Equally, there might not be bias, but critical scrutiny could expose fundamental errors in the conduct of the study not picked up during peer review.  Suspicion of bias alone is insufficient grounds to dismiss a study.  Innocent till proven guilty.

The following comment is issue-independent and may (or may not) be applicable to many issues where the conventional wisdom may not be quite the consensus claimed.

It occurred to me that:

bulletOne the one hand, researchers who have a high expectation of having their work reviewed with hostility or dismissed as being biased due to affiliations with vested interests actually have a powerful external incentive to adhere to high standards to ensure that their work will withstand intense scrutiny.   

bulletOn the other hand, researchers working within a dominant paradigm and who expect their results (or whose results are expected) to conform to the conventional wisdom, and who are likely to have a high expectation of having their work favourably received, are likely to be primarily dependent on internal motivation to adhere to high standards and may be vulnerable to don't rock the boat type influence/pressure. 

Finally, one man's vested interest is another man's concerned sponsor. It just depends which side of the issue you're on.

Return to the current post to place your own comments, 
and to view the response of a
n ETS expert in Ireland.  
You can also write to blog-at-tallrite-dot-com
(Clumsy form of my address to thwart spamming software that scans for e-mail addresses)

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 What I've recently
been reading

The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tol, 2006
“The Lemon Tree”, by Sandy Tol (2006),
is a delightful novel-style history of modern Israel and Palestine told through the eyes of a thoughtful protagonist from either side, with a household lemon tree as their unifying theme.

But it's not entirely honest in its subtle pro-Palestinian bias, and therefore needs to be read in conjunction with an antidote, such as
The Case for Israel, Alan Dershowitz, 2004

See detailed review

+++++

Drowning in Oil - Macondo Blowout
This
examines events which led to BP's 2010 Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. 

BP's ambitious CEO John Browne expanded it through adventurous acquisitions, aggressive offshore exploration, and relentless cost-reduction that trumped everything else, even safety and long-term technical sustainability.  

Thus mistakes accumulated, leading to terrifying and deadly accidents in refineries, pipelines and offshore operations, and business disaster in Russia.  

The Macondo blowout was but an inevitable outcome of a BP culture that had become poisonous and incompetent. 

However the book is gravely compromised by a litany of over 40 technical and stupid errors that display the author's ignorance and carelessness. 

It would be better to wait for the second (properly edited) edition before buying. 

As for BP, only a wholesale rebuilding of a new, professional, ethical culture will prevent further such tragedies and the eventual destruction of a once mighty corporation with a long and generally honourable history.

Note: I wrote my own reports on Macondo
in
May, June, and July 2010

+++++

Published in April 2010; banned in Singapore

A horrific account of:

  • how the death penalty is administered and, er, executed in Singapore,

  • the corruption of Singapore's legal system, and

  • Singapore's enthusiastic embrace of Burma's drug-fuelled military dictatorship

More details on my blog here.

+++++

Product Details
This is nonagenarian Alistair Urquhart’s incredible story of survival in the Far East during World War II.

After recounting a childhood of convention and simple pleasures in working-class Aberdeen, Mr Urquhart is conscripted within days of Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in 1939.

From then until the Japanese are deservedly nuked into surrendering six years later, Mr Urquhart’s tale is one of first discomfort but then following the fall of Singapore of ever-increasing, unmitigated horror. 

After a wretched journey Eastward, he finds himself part of Singapore’s big but useless garrison.

Taken prisoner when Singapore falls in 1941, he is, successively,

  • part of a death march to Thailand,

  • a slave labourer on the Siam/Burma railway (one man died for every sleeper laid),

  • regularly beaten and tortured,

  • racked by starvation, gaping ulcers and disease including cholera,

  • a slave labourer stevedoring at Singapore’s docks,

  • shipped to Japan in a stinking, closed, airless hold with 900 other sick and dying men,

  • torpedoed by the Americans and left drifting alone for five days before being picked up,

  • a slave-labourer in Nagasaki until blessed liberation thanks to the Americans’ “Fat Boy” atomic bomb.

Chronically ill, distraught and traumatised on return to Aberdeen yet disdained by the British Army, he slowly reconstructs a life.  Only in his late 80s is he able finally to recount his dreadful experiences in this unputdownable book.

There are very few first-person eye-witness accounts of the the horrors of Japanese brutality during WW2. As such this book is an invaluable historical document.

+++++

Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies
Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies

This is a rattling good tale of the web of corruption within which the American president and his cronies operate. It's written by blogger Michele Malkin who, because she's both a woman and half-Asian, is curiously immune to the charges of racism and sexism this book would provoke if written by a typical Republican WASP.

With 75 page of notes to back up - in best blogger tradition - every shocking and in most cases money-grubbing allegation, she excoriates one Obama crony after another, starting with the incumbent himself and his equally tricky wife. 

Joe Biden, Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarett, Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Steven Rattner, both Clintons, Chris Dodd: they all star as crooks in this venomous but credible book. 

ACORN, Mr Obama's favourite community organising outfit, is also exposed for the crooked vote-rigging machine it is.

+++++

Superfreakonomics
This much trumpeted sequel to Freakonomics is a bit of disappointment. 

It is really just a collation of amusing little tales about surprising human (and occasionally animal) behaviour and situations.  For example:

  • Drunk walking kills more people per kilometer than drunk driving.

  • People aren't really altruistic - they always expect a return of some sort for good deeds.

  • Child seats are a waste of money as they are no safer for children than adult seatbelts.

  • Though doctors have known for centuries they must wash their hands to avoid spreading infection, they still often fail to do so. 

  • Monkeys can be taught to use washers as cash to buy tit-bits - and even sex.

The book has no real message other than don't be surprised how humans sometimes behave and try to look for simple rather than complex solutions.

And with a final anecdote (monkeys, cash and sex), the book suddenly just stops dead in its tracks.  Weird.

++++++

False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World
A remarkable, coherent attempt by Financial Times economist Alan Beattie to understand and explain world history through the prism of economics. 

It's chapters are organised around provocative questions such as

  • Why does asparagus come from Peru?

  • Why are pandas so useless?

  • Why are oil and diamonds more trouble than they are worth?

  • Why doesn't Africa grow cocaine?

It's central thesis is that economic development continues to be impeded in different countries for different historical reasons, even when the original rationale for those impediments no longer obtains.  For instance:

  • Argentina protects its now largely foreign landowners (eg George Soros)

  • Russia its military-owned businesses, such as counterfeit DVDs

  • The US its cotton industry comprising only 1% of GDP and 2% of its workforce

The author writes in a very chatty, light-hearted matter which makes the book easy to digest. 

However it would benefit from a few charts to illustrate some of the many quantitative points put forward, as well as sub-chaptering every few pages to provide natural break-points for the reader. 

+++++

Burmese Outpost, by Anthony Irwin
This is a thrilling book of derring-do behind enemy lines in the jungles of north-east Burma in 1942-44 during the Japanese occupation.

The author was a member of Britain's V Force, a forerunner of the SAS. Its remit was to harass Japanese lines of command, patrol their occupied territory, carryout sabotage and provide intelligence, with the overall objective of keeping the enemy out of India.   

Irwin is admirably yet brutally frank, in his descriptions of deathly battles with the Japs, his execution of a prisoner, dodging falling bags of rice dropped by the RAF, or collapsing in floods of tears through accumulated stress, fear and loneliness. 

He also provides some fascinating insights into the mentality of Japanese soldiery and why it failed against the flexibility and devolved authority of the British. 

The book amounts to a  very human and exhilarating tale.

Oh, and Irwin describes the death in 1943 of his colleague my uncle, Major PF Brennan.

+++++

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