Smokes and mirrors

You know who you are. Occasionally you find yourself standing outside in the snow between classes. Maybe you wait an extra 20 minutes for a table at a half-full bar and grill. Or, perhaps, you yearn for semesters gone by when many college lecture halls had small ash trays built into the desks. Yes, you know who you are and, what’s more, I know who you are because I am one of you – a smoker.

This is not a badge to wear with undue pride, as we are reminded on a regular basis, but it is still a relatively legal activity aggressively pursued by many millions of Americans – though now 25 feet from entrances at the University. Smoking transcends traditional demographic variables such as gender, race, age, sexuality, income, nationality and acquired education. Some abhor it, some can’t live without it, but however you feel, it is generally agreed that smoking cigarettes is a terrible health risk Ö right?

Considering I’ve treated cigarettes like “Soylent Green” for the better part of a decade, you might not want to hear this from me, but there is a largely ignored translucent haze surrounding the issue of long-term health risks associated with smoking.

After a well-meaning student handed me a pamphlet last year concerning the dangers of smoking, I decided to look into the matter myself. The literature provided by the student used statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so that is where I started. My amateur inquiries and this particular column have little to do with smoking and more to do with understanding statistical information – especially the statistical information we receive from trusted institutions and the potential for manipulation underlying much of that data.

The CDC claims that from 1995 – 1999, smoking killed more than 440,000 people in the United States each year. Check it out for yourself at their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report located on the center’s Web site.

These numbers seemed reasonable based on the two decades of smoking-related health information to which I had been exposed. As I pondered the issue 25 feet from a West Bank doorway, my immediate acceptance of the CDC’s numbers started bothering me more and more until I was on the verge of self-disgust. Once I recovered from the coughing fit caused by this intense inner-chastisement, I was able to think more clearly and proceed on a course of action.

It seemed that an organization such as the CDC would generate more obvious controversy and debate on a topic as hot (excuse the pun) as smoking. Most of the Web sites and articles I looked at, however, simply used the CDC numbers to make their claims.

Eventually, I found a study from the Cato Institute addressing the CDC in its report. According to Cato:

Almost 255,000 of the 440,000 smoking-related deaths reported by the CDC – nearly 60 percent of the total – occurred at age 70 or above.

More than 192,000 deaths – nearly 45 percent of the total – occurred at age 75 or higher.

And roughly 72,000 deaths – almost 17 percent of the total – occurred at age 85 or above.

Now, who do we believe? The CDC is a reputable federal agency with extensive resources and a mandate to serve the public’s health interests. The Cato Institute, while consistently conservative, serves as a reputable watchdog for inaccuracies and fallacies in government operations – they also have a mandate to serve.

Even in a realm as important and vital to citizens’ well-being as public health, statistics represent a nebulous numerical playground with people’s lives and choices hanging precariously from the monkey bars. The CDC obviously cannot determine if smoking cigarettes leads directly to a 70-year-old’s death from heart disease any more than the Cato Institute can say it did not. The problem is the blanket authority many institutions have in peddling numbers to the public and the massive collective knee-jerk reaction those numbers can cause when we see them.

As someone who gets short of breath climbing a flight of stairs in my apartment building, I in no way dispute the adverse physical effects associated with consistent tobacco use. People, however, typically cannot stand blatant manipulation – even when it is backed by the best intentions. Looking at an issue, particularly one as seemingly cut and dry as tobacco, from multiple angles is a must to ensure our outlooks on public policy and the popular voice are not forfeited to the smoke being blown around us.

Aaron North is a student in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He welcomes comments at [email protected]