UN Defends Dangers of Passive Smoke

By Geir Moulson
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
March 9, 1998

GENEVA (AP) -- The World Health Organization has angrily denied reports in the British press that it had suppressed a study showing that secondhand smoke doesn't cause lung cancer.

Articles in the London's Sunday Telegraph and Monday's Times of London said the seven-year study was an embarrassment to the agency.

Industry giant British-American Tobacco Co. said the study casts "further doubt" on the health effects of passive smoking.

WHO countered in a statement Monday, saying the study had not been withheld and that its design was the reason it could not conclusively link cancer with secondhand smoke.

"Passive smoking does cause cancer. Do not let them fool you," WHO said.

WHO examined the effects of environmental tobacco smoke in seven European countries, seeking to test results of earlier studies that found increased risks of lung cancer for nonsmokers exposed to smoke.

The agency said it found about a 16 percent increased cancer risk in passive smokers. However, WHO acknowledged that this increase was not considered to be meaningful, because too few people were studied.

This study compared 650 lung cancer patients with 1,542 healthy people. Studies intended to pinpoint small increases in risk often must study many thousands of people in order to rule out the possibility that the results were a matter of chance.

"If this study cannot find any statistically valid risk, you have to ask whether there can be any risk at all," said British Tobacco's Head of Science Chris Proctor.

Even in conjunction with previous studies over the past 17 years, the company said the study doesn't show any "meaningful" increase in cancer risk from passive smoking.

But WHO tobacco unit chief Neil Collishaw said the findings were consistent with earlier studies -- including three last year by Australia, California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- that add up to a "clear global scientific consensus" that passive smoking causes lung cancer.

In a study released in October in Britain, researchers from the Royal London School of Medicine found that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker's risk of lung cancer and heart disease by about 25 percent.

WHO also said a paper containing the study's main results was sent last month to a "reputable scientific journal" for review, following normal pre-publication procedures.

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