Monday, 16 July 2007

The Truth About Smoking?

I am a 35 year old ‘smoker’ that has been trying to discover the 'truth' about smoking for a number of years. I have found this exceptionally difficult as the facts that are presented are often tainted, in my opinion, by both sides of the debate for political reasons. The reason the word smoker is in inverted commas above is because I am what I think could broadly be described as a light smoker most of the time these days (about 5 per day) and a non-smoker at other times (I occasionally ‘give up’ completely for a few weeks here and there). The reason I have started this website is because I consider myself to be genuinely neutral in the debate about smoking but am frustrated by the fact that it seems impossible for people in my position to make a genuine risk based decision on whether to smoke at all or not.

By way of background information, although I have always been aware that smoking was likely to be detrimental to my health, it was not something that overly concerned me until my father died when I was 25 years old. He was only in his fifties when he died of a heart attack. My father had smoked in his younger days but had given up in his thirties. He was, however, overweight due to the fact that he ate too many of the wrong types of food and did not embark on much exercise. Additionally he led a self inflicted stressful life due to what I can only describe as his love of adrenalin.

All of my smoking, between 25 and 29, was laden with guilt about what I was doing to my body. Between the ages of 25 and 29 this was a huge burden to me and at the age of 29 I ‘gave up’. However, at the age of 31, for various reasons, I began smoking again but at a significantly reduced rate (5 a day from 20 a day). I found that this level of smoking was enough to relax me more and, most importantly, I found it enjoyable (I realise that this statement is itself controversial as I may have only ‘thought’ that I found it enjoyable depending on which side of the argument on smoking you fall). What I can say is that I found that this level of smoking meant that I did not suffer from the level of guilt that I had previously.

However, according to the anti smoking campaigns, there is no ‘safe’ level of smoking. I am unsure whether this actually means that, whilst there is no ‘safe’ level of smoking, there is a reduced risk or not (ie there is no “safe” level of driving your car but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of dieing in a car crash such as driving your car much less). On top of this, it would seem that there are numerous countries (Japan and Italy being just two) that have higher smoking rates than Britain but have significantly lower death rates from cancer and heart disease. Does this mean that a healthy diet can mitigate some of the smoking risks? This appears to have been the view of the 'controversial' Dr Ken Denson from the Thame Thrombosis and Haemostasis Research Foundation. Dr Denson was of the opinion that there had never been a scientific study to show that smokers of less than ten cigarettes a day, who had an otherwise healthy life style, had an increased risk of dying. Is this true? I have no idea. Some articles I have seen appear to intimate that Dr Denson conducted his reports on behalf of the tobacco industry with the implication being that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Is this correct?

What does not help me is that the anti-smoking campaign seems to include people who have never smoked but died of such things as heart attacks in their statistics for people who have died of smoking diseases and also does not differentiate between people that died after the average life expectancy rates for men and women. Additionally, it is difficult for me to accept that smoking ten cigarettes a day is no different to smoking forty a day. It also seems sensible for me to conclude that family history must play a huge part in the disease rate of smokers (there is Alzheimer's in my family – pro-choice smoking groups often say that smoking can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s whereas anti-smoking campaigners say this is not the case). But I am no doctor.

An example of the problems I have encountered can be found in the findings of the famous Framingham study. I have seen testimony that says the Framingham study supports the proposition that all smoking is bad. However, I have also seen other testimony that says the study supports the proposition that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that light smoking is bad for your health. I have even seen some testimony that says light smoking, in general, has a greater affect on women than it does men. But other testimony appears to indicate that light smoking is bad full stop. There appears to be, as is often the case with any political hot potato, some 'massaging' of the relevant figures wherever I look and a fair amount of ‘spin’.

Historically when I have given up smoking in the past my blood pressure has actually increased. This is a fact. On top of this I have felt less relaxed than I have done when I have smoked. This may not be a ‘fact’ as I accept this could be all in my mind but it certainly feels like it is true to me. Given that my father was a non-smoker when he died, if having not smoked for twenty years counts as being a non-smoker, I am conscious of the effect stress/quality of life can have on the human body. I am also conscious of the effect being overweight can also have on a person's life expectancy and that reformed smokers tend to gain weight, as well as the effect a person’s mood can have on it (for example it has been said that married people live longer than single people due to their general feeling of well being etc). That said, I would also say that my levels of taste and smell improve considerably when I do not smoke at all and also that I feel less breathless. So what I am asking, whether you are pro-choice on smoking or anti-smoking full stop, is the provision of any serious data which can assist me in making a personal, logical and calculated decision on whether to be a light smoker or not. By the term ‘serious data’ I also include personal testimonies about family members or friends who have died young or died old that smoked as long as it concerns basic information about their ‘lifestyles’. In short anything that might help to create a fuller picture. I would even be interested to know, if anyone has such information, just how profitable the nicotine replacement industry has now become in comparison to the tobacco industry in this country.

As I have said above, I am genuinely neutral in my thoughts on smoking. It is only this neutrality that prevents me from being entirely comfortable about giving up smoking completely based on the evidence I have seen presented. Given that smoking contains the amount of poisons that it does, I am quite comfortable with the proposition that smoking is not good for your health. What I am keen to establish, in my own mind, is just how bad is light smoking if you lead an otherwise sensible life style? I want to make an informed decision on smoking. I would like to make a decision that, if possible, might help me to increase not just the length of my life but also the quality of my life. As tough as it can be to give up smoking completely I beleive that I would if I was 100% sure that no good could come of it. I would add that I suspect that this might well be the case. However, the idea that I could die younger through not smoking at all, than if I had smoked lightly, and therefore been happier in general, is the basic concern that had driven me to write this rather than the ‘personal choice’ argument that is most commonly heard. Dr Denson, who I have of course already mentioned, made the following statement and, unlikely as it may sound to many, I would hate to think that there could be some truth in it, “smokers have the most atrocious lifestyles, but otherwise healthy smokers in my opinion live longer than non-smokers. What a terrible mistake the medical establishment has made”

It is about time this country had an open discussion on smoking that enabled people to make an informed choice on the risks. I cannot imagine that either the pro-choice groups on smoking or the anti-smoking campaigners could have a serious problem with this. I await any responses gratefully with interest. I am sending a link of this webpage to many of the parties that I believe would be most interested and, hopefully, most knowledgeable on the subject.