Published in Providence Business News (July 11-17, 2005)
To see the dramatic impact of junk science on public policy, look no further than the public smoking ban imposed by a number of states, including the recently imposed ban on public smoking in Rhode Island.
The General Assembly banned smoking in virtually all indoor public places, and some outdoor places as well.
But has science in fact proven that second hand smoke, or “Environmental Tobacco Smoke” (‘ETS’) as it is sometimes called, is in fact a cancer causing agent?
Not according to a federal judge who found the EPA’s report classifying ETS as a Group A human carcinogen was riddled with inconsistencies and was guilty of selectively using data supporting its thesis, rejecting contradictory data, and even ignoring EPA’s own methodological standards to support its position. As the judge characterized it, “EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun”.
While an appeal court subsequently overturned the trial court’s decision because the EPA’s action was not “final agency action” which could then be reviewed by a court, the trial court’s findings remain a sharp indictment of the EPA. The trial court’s decision exposes the EPA as an agency that was determined not to let scientific rigor and the Agency’s own accepted scientific methodology get in its way of finding what it wanted to be true, that ETS causes cancer in humans. Without proper scientific support, the EPA went so far as to claim that ETS kills 3000 Americans a year.
According to the trial court, EPA reached its conclusions by ignoring accepted scientific methodology, apparently because following such methodology would not have allowed EPA to define ETS to be a Group A human carcinogen.
For example, EPA switched, without explanation, from “the conventionally used” standard 95% confidence interval to a 90% confidence interval in order to obtain “statistically significant findings” which would not have been obtained if it used the standard confidence interval.
Additionally, EPA based its classification “in large part on a resulting relative risk of only 1.19,” while every other Group A human carcinogen classification had to exhibit much higher relative risk factors. And this despite the fact that EPA had previously found relative risks of 2.6 and 3.0 insufficient to classify other agents as Group A human carcinogens. As one epidemiologist stated, an association is generally considered weak if the relative risk is under 3.0, and particularly where it is under 2.0.
Internationally known novelist, and Harvard trained physician, Michael Crichton, who would personally prefer that there was no smoking in public places, has nevertheless been particularly outspoken about the EPA’s use of junk science to find ETS a Group A human carcinogen. As he noted, a risk factor below 3.0 is not only too small for action by the EPA, it is even too small for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine! According to Crichton “this was openly fraudulent science but it formed a basis for bans on smoking in restaurants, offices and airports.
Crichton noted that as municipalities and states have moved to ban public smoking “soon, no claim was too extreme”, such as that second-hand smoke is the nation’s third leading preventable cause of death. Or as the American Cancer Society has asserted, 53,000 people die each year of second-hand smoke. According to Crichton, “the evidence for this claim is nonexistent”.
Crichton also points out that subsequent studies have failed to demonstrate that second-hand smoke is a human carcinogen, but that “we now have a social policy supported by the grosses of superstitions”.
It has apparently taken a lot of smoke and mirrors from the EPA and others to get the smoke out of public places.