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Secondhand Smoke Study Raises Ire

Study Shows No Association Between Passive Smoke and Health Risks; Others Criticize Research
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May 15, 2003 -- A controversial new study that questions the health risks of being exposed to secondhand smoke -- a factor often said to contribute to some 50,000 American deaths each year -- has outraged some health officials.

The new study, to be published in the May 17 issue of the British Medical Journal, shows no measurable rates of heart disease or lung cancer among nonsmokers who ever lived with smokers, and reports only a slight increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Many health agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, have long said that secondhand smoke boosts the risk of heart disease by about 30% and lung cancer risk by 25% in nonsmokers.

"We found no measurable effect from being exposed to secondhand smoke and an increased risk of heart disease or lung cancer in nonsmokers -- not at any time or at any level," lead researcher James Enstrom, PhD, MPH, of the UCLA School of Public Health, tells WebMD. "The only thing we did find, which was not reported in the study, is that nonsmokers who live with smokers have a increased risk of widowhood because their smoking spouses do die prematurely."

However, the American Cancer Society blasted the study -- and Enstrom -- for misusing its own data in an attempt to "confuse the public about the dangers of secondhand smoke." And former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond, MD, is expected to join other medical experts in calling the study "bogus" in a news conference on Friday.

The study was funded in part by the Center for Indoor Air Research, which the American Cancer Society says is an arm of Philip Morris and other tobacco companies. Enstrom requested and received funding for the study in 1997.

For his finding, Enstrom used data from an ACS study -- the Cancer Prevention Study I that began in 1959 as one of the first major smoking studies. It involved some 1 million Americans across the country; Enstrom focused on some 36,000 nonsmoking Californians whose spouses had smoked, part of the 118,000 state residents in the trial. Although the study ended in 1972, Enstrom traced the cause of death of some 7,000 of those participants until 1998.

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