Big differences, small differences

I am working on a paper and had a new interesting thought that I have not written (or seen) before, so I thought it was worth highlighting rather than burying as an aside:

I read this morning for the zillionth time the apparently religious claim that all standard cigarettes pose exactly the same risk, regardless of filter technologies (or even lack of filter), low tar, blend, clever technologies that reduce CO emissions, etc.  It should be obvious that this cannot possibly be true.  The myth sometimes goes on to claim that smokers perfectly compensate for any differences among the physical products by smoking different quantities or in different ways.  Riiiiight.  Who makes this stuff up?  It is probably true that lowering nicotine content increases smoking intensity, making the products higher risk.  But why would a smoker try to increase his risk to make up for a better filter?  It would be stunning if these all-exactly-the-same cigarettes did not vary in risk by more than 10%.

By contrast, the same actors tend to claim that there is a substantial difference in risk between pharma nicotine products and well-studied Western smokeless tobacco products.  I have repeatedly pointed out that this is pure speculation, since there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim, and that any difference must be small because there is almost no room to be less risky than ST.

What just occurred to me is that the denied difference in risk among standard cigarettes is undoubtedly tens of times as great as the claimed difference among smokeless products, perhaps hundreds of times different.  The math is simple:  ST is estimated to be about 1/100th as harmful as smoking, so even if pharma nicotine were only half that risky (which seems inconceivable since this small estimated risk is almost entirely due to the cardiovascular effects of nicotine), if risks among cigarettes varied by as little as 5%, the latter would be ten times as great a difference.  In a less extreme scenario, where the relative difference between ST and pharma products is a more realistic smaller number, the ratio would be much higher.

Interestingly, the anti-THR activists who would like us to believe there is some substantial difference in risk among smokeless products (and those who are tricked by them into repeating the claim) put a lot of stock in observing that ST or the bodies of ST users contain various chemicals that are absent from e-cigarettes and pharma products.  But there are substantial differences in many of these chemicals among cigarettes which apparently make no difference at all.  Funny that.

It does not, of course, surprise me to discover that these supposedly scientific claims associated with tobacco are the same sort of pseudo-science mantras that have always been used to support misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-contraception, anti-abortion, invading Iraq, etc.  Say something enough times and most people will believe it and even those who disagree will feel they have to repeat it.  What is surprising is to discover I overlooked an obvious reply to myths that have been annoying me for years.  Such is the power of myths — even when we know they are wrong, they can keep us from thinking straight.

– Carl V. Phillips

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