Response to secondhand smoking debate

March 21, 2014

Dear Editor:

On March 12, Doug Kneibert contributed a column that appeared to change the discussion related to the health risks of exposure to secondhand smoke. As the designated county health officer, a public health professional and a health care provider, I was surprised that this new revelation did not create significant discussion in the professional press. Upon further investigation, the facts of the new study discussed by Mr. Kneibert were not completely addressed.

First, the study was not done by the National Cancer Institute. The information came from a presentation by a medical student, Ange Wang, at the June 2013 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The data for the study came from a review of the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study data of 76,304 women aged 50-79 with complete data available. Of that group, 901 women developed lung cancer in a 10.5 year period.

The question of the study was does secondhand smoke exposure cause lung cancer? There was not enough information for the researchers to make a clear statement, but did agree that “We can not say it’s not a risk factor.” Heather Wakelee, MD of Stanford University, one of the study senior investigators, explained that the women’s health study only had 901 cases of lung cancer and only 152 of those occurred in never smokers. Moreover, of nearly 40,000 non-smokers in the study, only 4,000 reported no exposure to cigarette smoke. “It’s hard to say anything conclusive with such small numbers,” stated Dr. Wakelee.

Debbie Winn, PhD, deputy director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute, stated the International Agency for Research on Cancer as well as the National Cancer Institute have said unequivocally that passive smoking is a cause of lung cancer. “You shouldn’t conclude from this study that it isn’t,” stated Dr. Winn.

Whether you believe secondhand smoke contributes to health problems or not depends upon your perspective. There is a great deal of strong research that supports the ill effects of second hand smoke on health. If you would like a copy of the report of the study cited by Mr. Kneibert, contact the Pettis County Health Center.

The bottom line is smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke has effects upon health besides lung cancer. There are many people in our community who have shared their stories. Cleaner air is a benefit for all of us.

JoAnn Martin, MSN, RN

Administrator, Pettis County Health Center