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Alex Beam

Where there's smoke...there's Dr. Siegel

Email|Print| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / November 13, 2007

Oh, my. I guess Boston University professor Dr. Michael Siegel won't be getting invited to the "right" dinner parties in towns like Newton and Brookline, where whiffs of secondhand smoke are equated with a release of Ebola virus.

Siegel has just published a heretical paper in the journal Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations analyzing the purported effects of secondhand smoke. Siegel - the kind of doctor who can cure you, not the Dr. Kissinger type - writes that "there appears to be no scientific basis for claims that brief, acute, transient exposure to secondhand smoke increases heart attack risk in individuals without coronary disease . . . that it can cause atherosclerosis, that it can cause fatal or catastrophic cardiac arrhythmias, or that it represents any other significant acute cardiovascular health hazard in nonsmokers."

This flies in the face of the received wisdom that 30 minutes' worth of secondhand smoke can cause heart attacks and strokes, wisdom that is prompting some cities to consider outdoor smoking bans. Siegel allows that brief exposure to tobacco smoke does affect heart rate and circulation, but the effect wears off within hours, or sometimes immediately. "I am a very strong proponent of workplace smoking bans," Siegel says. "But outdoors, where people can move around, it is not a substantial public health problem."

Guess what? Even though brief exposure to secondhand smoke poses close to zero public health risk, Siegel writes, "a large number of anti-smoking organizations are making inaccurate claims that a single, acute, transient exposure to secondhand smoke can cause severe and even fatal cardiovascular events in healthy nonsmokers." Well, duh. That's because the anti-smoking lobbies aren't in business to promote public health; they're in business to stay in business.

Among the targets of Siegel's scorn are Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, Action on Smoking and Health, TobaccoScam, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Even for people without . . . respiratory conditions, breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly," is a typical remark found on the website of ASH.

Siegel, a respected if now despised scientist in his field, has been pummeling the anti-tobacco movement on secondhand smoke for several years in his blog, tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com. A spokesman for Tobacco-Free Kids declined to discuss Siegel: "We don't want to say anything to categorize him in any way."

"I view him as a tragic figure - he has completely lost it," says University of California tobacco researcher Stanton Glantz. "His view is that everybody in the tobacco control movement is corrupt and misguided except for him. You have to be careful what you say to preserve credibility in academic circles, and he is not doing that."

While emphasizing his core disagreements with Siegel on a host of issues, Glantz himself isn't crusading for outdoor smoking bans. "I think the outdoor bans are being driven more by environmental concerns than by health effects," he says.

Mailer's ghost

Norman Mailer gets the last word in WGBH-TV's forthcoming documentary on the Kennedy assassination, "Oswald's Ghost." Mailer and his pal Lawrence Schiller traveled to Minsk in the mid-1990s and did some interesting journalism about Oswald's stay in the former USSR. Bombastically misguided on so many issues, Mailer came to believe, correctly I think, that Oswald acted alone in killing the president. "That there were conspiracies being attempted on that day, I am perfectly willing to accept," Mailer tells the producers of "Oswald's Ghost." "But the conclusions I came to were for me rational ones, because [Oswald] had the motive for doing it, because he was as capable of doing it, and because he wanted to do it." Mailer furnishes the film's final lines: "Oswald is a ghost who sits upon American life. What is maddening about ghosts is that you never know the answer. Is it this, or is it that? You can't know, because the ghost doesn't tell you."

The 90-minute documentary is slated to air Jan. 14.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com

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