The Magazine

SECONDHAND STATISTICS

Aug 3, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 45 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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IN THE ANTI-TOBACCO CRUSADE, the number 3,000 is king. The most cherished statistic of the crusade is that 3,000 kids a day begin to smoke. The next most cherished statistic is that 3,000 non-smokers a year die of "secondhand smoke." These figures fly through the air like missiles, launched by politicians, regulators, and activists. But are they true?


The figure on secondhand smoke suffered a blow earlier this month when a federal judge ruled it a politically inspired fiction. He was deciding a case brought by the tobacco industry against the Environmental Protection Agency, which in 1993 declared secondhand smoke a "Class A carcinogen," responsible for those 3,000 deaths each year. On the strength of the EPA's report, municipalities took to the ramparts, forcing restaurants to close their smoking sections, demanding that offices banish their smoking employees to the sidewalk. Even "Dear Abby" sounded the alarm. She warned readers of her column that the EPA had rated secondhand smoke a danger "on a par with asbestos and radon," and that "one non-smoker dies of secondhand smoke for every eight smokers."


Judge William J. Osteen of North Carolina -- tobacco country, his critics hurry to point out -- was withering in his assessment of what the EPA had done. In a 92-page opinion, he faulted the agency for being "publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun," for "violating procedural requirements," for "adjusting scientific norms to validate" a pre-ordained result, for "failing to disclose important findings and reasoning," and for installing a "de facto regulatory scheme" over the hated product, tobacco.


The Clinton administration, of course, was aghast. EPA administrator Carol Browner promised an immediate appeal, saying, "We believe the health risks to children and adults from breathing secondhand smoke are very real." But Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services, expressed the most sincere objection to the judge's ruling, an objection that is primarily aesthetic and cultural: "No one wants to go back to smoking on airplanes, smoking in restaurants. No one wants to go back to polluting indoors." This is critically different from claiming a medical threat. As statistician David Murray puts it, "The science on secondhand smoke is not terribly good. Therefore, we ought to have the courage of our political choices, rather than pretend that the science compels us to do one thing or the other."


And what of the other 3,000 -- the number of kids per day who are said to embark on smoking careers? Politicians from President Clinton to Sen. John McCain hold this statistic over the heads of America, citing it as a national shame that requires drastic measures. The Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids has nothing but scorn for those who question the figure, asserting in its literature, "Everyone (except the tobacco companies) wishes it were not true, but it is." Former Food and Drug Administration honcho David Kessler reacted wearily when asked about the statistic at a congressional hearing last year. "You can always debate," he grumbled, but "it's been vetted multiple times." Anti-tobacco warriors tend to treat any skepticism as either heresy or malice.


Disinterested scientists, however, are less dogmatic. The 3,000 figure on kids began life in 1989, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published "Trends in Cigarette Smoking in the United States." The authors found that "1 million new young persons per year are recruited to the ranks of regular smokers," the equivalent of "about 3,000 new smokers each day." But they were forthright as to the character of their sample: "For purposes of this analysis, only persons aged 20 years and older are included, as information was not collected on younger persons in any consistent fashion" during the relevant period.