A recent CBC article Bone drugs may raise throat cancer risk contained the following sentence:
“Esophageal cancer is an uncommon cancer,” said Jane Green, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, one of the paper’s authors. “Even a doubled risk is still a very small risk.”
The article was about the possible negative effects associated with taking bone-building pills called bisphosphonates. These pills doubled the risk.
In this other article from U.S. News about smokeless tobacco, the esophageal cancer risk is said to increase by 60%. Fair enough but rather than a similar statement about the rarity, the conclusion is that this is evidence that snuff “is not a safe alternative to smoking” with that conclusion being promoted to headline news.
So in the first case using a drug which can greatly improve the quality of life for a condition that in itself is not fatal but whose taking will increase the risk of getting a very rare cancer is considered a reasonable trade off, but in the second substituting smokeless tobacco for smoking (which entails much higher risks for a number of cancer not to mention the even higher risks of cardiovascular disease) is “not recommended”. This after explicitly stating it is safer.
That is, to belabor the point, the authors tell you that if smokers switch to smokeless tobacco, fewer of them will die, but they do not recommend that course of action.
To return to one of our favourite analogies regarding this inappropriateness consider seat belts (once again). Its as if you looked at all those accidents where people died while in their seat belts and said “well, if they would have been walking instead of driving with their seat belts on then they would still be alive” and then recommended against seat belts in cars on that basis.
All we ask, is to inject a little more common sense into tobacco related reports and comments by those highly educated researchers who should know better, particularly when it comes to discussing options for smokers (see my parody post of what passes for this kind of reporting and the comments which indicate that some did not find its outrageousness much of a stretch at all).
There are a million small risks about us all the time. It doesn’t hurt to know a little about them but we should not make the mistake of letting them distract us from making the proper big decisions.
-Paul L. Bergen