Opinion: Leave The Pack (and the bogus science) Behind
Friday, September 16, 20110 Comments
An ad produced by Leave the Pack Behind
I smoked heavily during my undergraduate years at the University of Guelph. At various points in my time on campus, I remember seeing the Leave The Pack Behind (LTPB) campaign. Although it didn’t influence my personal habits much, I certainly thought the initiative was worthy. After all, cigarettes really do kill the equivalent of a small city every year, in Canada alone.
But when a friend handed me a poster that was authorized the Guelph chapter of the group, the content really struck me as off. The poster was attacking cannabis use head-on, and even implied that smoking a joint was considerably more likely to give you cancer than smoking cigarettes. It quoted "American Cancer Society, 2007" so I had to check their references.
I went to the LTPB website to find the source, and there was none. So I went directly to the American Cancer Society website, and found a statement more in line with what I understood the case to be: "Results of epidemiologic studies of marijuana and cancer risk have been inconsistent, and most recent epidemiologic studies have not found a substantial effect on cancer risk.” (American Cancer Society, 2011)
That same week I was reading the Globe and Mail, and found an article on this exact subject. Here are the first few lines:
“Smoking marijuana doesn't boost your chances of getting lung cancer, even if you're a long-time, heavy dope user, according to a new study.
The U.S. researchers were surprised by their findings, presented this week at a conference of the American Thoracic Society in San Diego. They had expected the controversial weed would jack up cancer risk, just like smoking tobacco.
In fact, previous studies have shown that marijuana tar contains 50 per cent higher concentrations of chemicals linked to lung cancer, compared with tobacco, said lead researcher Donald Tashkin of the University of California at Los Angeles. What's more, marijuana smokers hold their breath about four times longer than tobacco consumers, allowing more time for the hazardous particles to deposit in the lungs.
Even so, the study of more than 2,000 people with different smoking habits found no link between dope smoking and lung, head or neck cancers.”
I decided to email the local chapter of LTPB and politely ask them to revise the content of their campaign because it seemed to focus more on the unproven risks of cannabis use, than the proven risks of cigarette smoking. The divergence from their stated goals seemed unjustified. After several email exchanges, I was eventually ignored. They didn`t seem to appreciate comments like “My concern is that the people who wrote the content on marijuana for your campaign are not properly representing the available body of evidence, and to focus on this in your campaign does a disservice to your attempts to get students off of cigarettes.”
So a few months later I decided to dig deeper on their website, and check through some more of their claims. What I found also didn`t sit right with me.
They take aim at e-cigarettes, which are a new and yet unregulated product that vaporizes nicotine. They quote a Health Canada advisory cautioning people not to use the products until further testing is done, but then jump to some conclusions that are not based on anything. The LTPB website says "e-cigarettes may seem cool or a good way to quit, but they are just another tool by the industry to keep you hooked!” Really? I didn’t know that tobacco cigarette companies owned e-cigarette companies and were promoting bogus cessation products specifically to ensure their customers wouldn’t effectively quit. That’s a serious allegation, and one that requires serious documentation. Of course this one claim doesn't come with a reference.
Now I’m not supporting the use of e-cigarettes and would lean more towards Health Canada’s view that they should be regulated (the FDA opted to regulate, and not ban them), but the LTPB claim of “They may be as dangerous as cigarette smoking” isn’t exactly supported by the available evidence. The data just isn’t in yet. In 2010, the British Medical Journal printed these words: “To date, animal and human studies on the health effects of actively or passively smoking e-cigarettes are lacking.”
The next wild claim they make on their website is that running is almost twice as effective as a stop-smoking aide as the patch or gum, and a full 25% of those who pick up running will end up being smoke-free. They do include two references for this claim – one is a study of under 300 people where the results were voluntarily reported, and the other reference was for a systematic review of all the available studies at that point on the link between exercise and smoking cessation. It’s findings were: “Of the eight trials satisfying our inclusion criteria, only two trials found a positive effect for exercise on smoking abstinence. The others showed no effect.” Again, the data is severely lacking considering the weight the LTPB campaign is putting on these claims – their QuitRunChill advert promoting exercise over proven methods was front and centre of the home page last time I logged on.
Leave The Pack Behind is a campaign largely operated out of Brock University, but it has chapters on a number of local campuses, including ours. The basic premise is that they try to educate post-secondary students about the dangers of smoking, while countering industry propaganda. This seems noble enough, but my problem is that in doing so, they are using many of the same tactics that the tobacco industry uses in their propaganda campaign – namely misrepresenting data to suit their personal interests.
Smoking is certainly bad, but volumes of solid evidence exist that can be used to prove this. By taking aim at cannabis, jumping the gun on e-cigarette technology, and suggesting that exercise alone is one of the most effective ways to quit an addiction more gripping than opiates is a campaign that does a disservice to students in an academic environment.
The LTPB website says: “Proof of LTPB's success on each campus has led to LTPB being recognized as a 'best practice' for tobacco control with young adults and has ensured continued financial support.” Whoever is paying for this should take a few minutes to check the references.
Scott Gilbert is a former student of the University of Guelph.
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