More smoking ban miracles, more bad reporting

Reports are once again lighting up with a new study about smoking bans triggering a sudden drop in heart attack rates. Here’s Sunday Times reporter Jonathan Leake:

The ban on public smoking has caused a fall in heart attack rates of about 10%, a study has found.

Researchers commissioned by the Department of Health have found a far sharper fall than they had expected in the number of heart attacks in England in the year after the ban was imposed in July 2007.

In Scotland, where the ban was introduced a year earlier, heart attack rates have fallen by about 14% because of the ban, separate research has shown. Similar results are expected in Wales where a third study is still under way. […]

“We always knew a public smoking ban would bring rapid health benefits, but we have been amazed by just how big and how rapid they are,” said John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies at Nottingham University.

I’d love to dig into this study and find out how they got these numbers. The problem? As Michael Siegel explains, there is no study:

It turns out that there is no “study” to behold. The “study” appears to merely be a work in progress that has not yet been published or even submitted for publication, yet its results and conclusion were widely disseminated through the media. In other words, this is yet another example of what I call “science by press release.”

It appears that the conclusions of the study have been released to the media, but that the actual research itself is not being made publicly available. The study itself is not available, from what I can tell, on the University of Bath web site or the web site of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies.

Therefore, it is impossible to judge whether the conclusions of the study are valid or not. And if the conclusions turn out to be unwarranted, then it will be too late to reverse them. The media have already disseminated the conclusion widely. Any correction given down the road would have little effect.

How these figures were calculated is therefore anybody’s guess. Christopher Snowdon suggests a few options based on previous manipulations in smoking ban studies and notes that the publicly available data from the NHS don’t support the conclusion:

We know that the heart attack rate fell by between 2 and 4% before the ban and by between 2 and 4% after the ban (see the HES website). To date, we only have the data for the first 9 months following the smoking ban, but that it is enough to go on. After all, if smoking bans immediately save lives, the first 9 months is where we would see the biggest drop.

Snowdon also notes his surprise at seeing the Scottish statistics reported in the Times since the paper previously considered the study one of the “worst junk stats of 2007:”

“Smoking ban cut heart attacks in Scotland by 17 per cent”, researchers and politicians trumpeted to the world in September through press releases, a conference and interviews, all faithfully reported. It was the ban what done it, they said… until six weeks later when official data halved the drop — to 8 per cent — against a trend immediately before the ban of a 5 or 6 per cent drop, and a fall a few years ago of 11. All of which makes it hard to be sure what, if any, effect the ban really had. The researchers went strangely silent.

Leake quotes numerous experts who favor the unpublished study and not a single critic despite the thrashing that so many similar studies have taken. This is the sort of lazy journalism we’ve seen repeatedly in the field of tobacco regulation, where researchers can make any outlandish claim against smoking without fear of skepticism from gullible reporters. I don’t expect intellectual integrity from anti-tobacco activists, but we should demand better from the press.

Update 9/15/09: Now even ASH has backed away from this claim, saying “We have heard that the figures reported in the Sunday Times yesterday (and now circulating elsewhere) are not based on any research conducted to date.”

More lazy tobacco reporting
Lazy reporting and the Pueblo ban study


6 thoughts on “More smoking ban miracles, more bad reporting”

  1. Wouldn’t an expected drop in heart-attack rates occur over a longer period of time? Isn’t the heart disease in theory due to a prolonged exposure to second-hand smoke that wouldn’t be counteracted by merely stopping its inhalation for a month or two?

  2. @Jeff: Short answer: Yes.

    Longer answer: The theory of anti-smoking activists is that exposure produces sudden changes in the pulmonary system that can trigger a heart attack in at-risk people. While this is possible, such people would basically be walking time bombs to have a heart attack triggered by any stressor, smoking included, and it’s very doubtful that smoking bans have produced sudden declines of the sort claimed in these studies.

    Another complication is that aggregate numbers don’t tell you if heart attacks are being reduced in people who are exposed to less second-hand smoke or in smokers who smoke less because of the ban. If the bulk of the decline is in the latter, the case for the ban is less about protecting others and is much more paternalist.

  3. I think you can rule out that this reduction of heart attacks is because smokers are smoking less.…tack- rates.html
    “The proportion of men who smoke had actually risen since the ban was introduced while there was no change at all among women, according to the Health Survey for England which was carried out by the NHS for ministers.

    The survey of almost 7,000 across all age groups found on average there was no change in the number of cigarettes that smokers said they had.

    In fact, in men aged 16 to 34, the number rose, by one and a half cigarettes a day.”

  4. Interesting to read all the smokers in denial about smoking killing smokers and non smokers. Interesting to read about the rights of smokers to smoke in public and kill people. Been there, done that.

    I would like to see the ban extended to smoking in the streets as in France. People breath in smokers’ fumes as they walk past. Children and the weak minded will see them smoking and may be tempted to imitate them. Killing other people should be against the law.

  5. Well New – according to that theory. People should not drink any alchohol in front of children. I don’t want my child drinking soda since it has no nutritional value. It should be banned in public. Matter of fact, gay people should be allowed in public since children and weak willed my try to imitate them.

    Your line of thinking has been used by the “Do Gooders” for many different issues. They say that we must act like they want for the children. My question if my child nevers sees life, how can I tell him what is right and what is wrong.

  6. “I would like to see the ban extended to smoking in the streets as in France. People breath in smokers’ fumes as they walk past”.

    A huge worry, of course, seeing as it pollutes all the fresh, clean, diesel emissions. Good grief, have you ever listened to yourself?

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