Just Because It’s in The New York Times Doesn’t Mean It’s True

The photo above was found in one of my college yearbooks, as I took a trip down memory lane this weekend.

What’s striking about the photo is that the young woman is smoking a cigarette, in the student union. Now back then, no one gave such an action much thought. But could you imagine what would happen today if someone tried to light up a cigarette in a student union?

But more relevant than the girl smoking, at least for the purpose of this blog, is the fact that there is a guy sitting right next to her, oblivious to what is going on around him. (Now there’s nothing unusual about that, in fact that’s how guys usually are).

And perhaps one of the reasons he is oblivious is because the letter to the editor shown below, from the April 29, 1978 New York Times indicates what the current mindset was in regards to smoking:

The letter was written by Michael T. Craig, Director of Media Relations at The Tobacco Institute. Here are some of the excerpts:

One of the most widely believed but incorrect health assumptions in circulation today is that tobacco smoke in the air is hazardous to nonsmokers.

Doctors and scientists, including many who believe smoking is hazardous to the smoker, said there was not a shred of evidence that a nonsmoker can get cancer from so-called second-hand smoke.

… there is little danger of disease to people that stay in a room where people smoke.

So that’s why we had things like this going on while I was in college:

here’s another shot from the student union

And it wasn’t just students doing this in the student union. How about a teacher smoking in the classroom:

Of course, that type of behavior simply does not exist today. Sure, people smoke, but not inside of a building. And certainly not in front of a roomful of college students.

I’m not sure what happened between 1978 and 2018, or when it happened, but certainly attitudes and beliefs about second-hand tobacco smoke are quite different today than they were back then.

Here are some facts about the dangers of second hand smoke, from the American Lung Association:

  • Secondhand smoke causes approximately 7,330 deaths from lung cancer and 33,950 deaths from heart disease each year.
  • Between 1964 and 2014, 2.5 million people died from exposure to secondhand smoke, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General. The report also concluded that secondhand smoke is a definitive cause of stroke.
  • There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and even short-term exposure potentially can increase the risk of heart attacks.
  • Secondhand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic ammonia and hydrogen cyanide.
  • Secondhand smoke can cause heart attacks; even relatively brief exposure can trigger a heart attack, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine.
  • Secondhand smoke costs our economy $5.6 billion per year due to lost productivity.
  • The health of nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke at work is at increased risk. Levels of secondhand smoke in restaurants and bars were found to be two- to five-times higher than in residences with smokers, and two- to six-times higher than in office workplaces.
  • Being employed in a workplace where smoking is prohibited is associated with a reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked per day and an increase in the success rate of smokers who are attempting to quit.
  • Casino workers in particular are exposed to hazardous levels of toxic secondhand smoke at work, including tobacco-specific carcinogens that increased in their bodies as their work shifts progressed, according to a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
  • Secondhand smoke is especially harmful to young children. Secondhand smoke is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year. It also causes 430 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths in the U.S. annually.
  • Secondhand smoke exposure may cause buildup of fluid in the middle ear, resulting in 790,000 doctor’s office visits per year, as well as more than 202,000 asthma flare-ups among children each year.
  • More than 24 million, or about 37 percent of children in the U.S. have been exposed to secondhand smoke.

The above facts clearly contradict the stated beliefs from 1978 about the effects of secondhand smoke. How could the “experts” have been so wrong about the negative impact of tobacco smoke?

Are there better testing techniques in place today to prevent such incidents from occurring? Were there coverups about the negative effects of tobacco smoke on nonsmokers?

We’ll probably never know the reason why such an event occurred. But the good news is that somewhere along the line we learned about the ill effects of secondhand smoke, and have worked tirelessly to minimize such effects.

The result of such efforts:

  • we see fewer people smoking
  • we never see people smoking indoors.
  • teachers can’t get away with smoking in the classroom.

All of these changes benefit both the smoker and the nonsmoker.

So I guess not everything we read in the New York Times is true, even if the story is backed with research evidence. We need to be diligent about the type of research that is conducted, particularly when the results of such research has an impact on millions of lives.

And looking forward, here are some commonly accepted beliefs we have today that I hope will be completely debunked 40 years from now:

  • guns keep us safe
  • the death penalty is an effective deterrent against crime
  • that Borden guy’s blog will never catch on

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