Unhealthful News 94 – Rockin’ the low-risk nicotine

Today I did an interview for MTV in Beirut about tobacco harm reduction options.  The interviewer and his producer were both intent on me making my statements relevant to their teenage and just-over-20 audience.  The question that seemed most burning(!) that they wanted me to address had nothing to do with snus or e-cigarettes, but was simply about the reasons why someone should consider not smoking. (Smoking is allowed most everywhere here — restaurants, the airport, elevators.  I suppose when there are shrapnel holes in so many buildings the FCTC seems a bit quaint.)

It was asked to primarily focus on the observation that all the kids know someone who got lung cancer but did not smoke (though I actually doubt many kids really do know someone with that particular combination) or smokers who lived to old age with no problem.  So, the quasi-logic goes, how can you claim that smoking is really causing disease.  That was certainly a nostalgic conversation (thought it had pretty much played out in American long before I had the scientific expertise to join it).  I had to try to explain relative risk in simply terms in about twenty seconds – I am not sure I did a great job, but I am not sure how I could have done much better.

Yes, I know a lot of people still think that way, not just youth in this region.  But it was still quite interesting to be reminded that as much as we hear about health risks from various sources, most people still have no intuition for the notion of baseline risk.  That is, some people will get a disease without an exposure but more will get it with the exposure (like 10-20 times more for lung cancer and smoking).  So much information about health risks is broadcast to people, but no one ever bothers to explain that crucial point.  I may be reading too much into a brief cross-cultural encounter, but I get the impression that the news crew was quite fascinated that I was able to immediately answer the the question of how smoking can cause cancer if people get cancer even if they do not smoke.  Wow.

Anyway, I still had a few seconds to explain that those youth who wanted to use tobacco/nicotine should consider low-risk products instead of cigarettes.  The reporter discussed with me, but then omitted from the interview out of concern for time, the message that smoking for only a relatively short time is far worse for you than using smoke-free products indefinitely.  I am not entirely sure what the interviewer said to the audience in Arabic as a concluding point (obviously he interviewed me in English) but I think it was an endorsement of the message.  So, though I am not 100% confident about it, I would like to think that I contributed to the non-Unhealthful News today.

(Oh, and Miss Lebanon was here today to kick of the film festival that is part of the IHRA conference.  Kind of odd for us boring researcher types to walk down a red carpet and be photographed arriving at an event, but I understand that publicity for public health is a great thing.  She attracted quite a press corps, most of who took the time to take a several pictures of Phinney, making him the second-most photographed person at the conference after the beauty princess.  Out of sheer personal and paternal ego, I will let you know if I get any links to the interview or those photos.)

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