WHO passive smoking study: tobacco industry & Sunday Telegraph disinformation nailed

Tuesday 06 October 1998

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Press releaseEmbargo: 21:00 (UK) October 6th 1998
16:00 (US EST)
Action on Smoking
and Health

WHO passive smoking study – tobacco industry and Sunday Telegraph disinformationnailed

A study that was used to justify the headline “Passive smoking does not causecancer -official” is published today. The Sunday Telegraph of 8th March sparked ahuge controversy when it claimed to have seen the study results and that these showed notonly that passive smoking does not cause cancer, but that there could be a protectiveeffect from breathing tobacco smoke. It was also claimed that the WHO was so embarrassedby the findings that it had withheld the report. The published study shows thisreporting was completely false and misleading.

The study [1] shows that passive smoking at home or at work increases the risk of lungcancer by 16-17% compared to a non-smoker not exposed to passive smoking. The study isconsistent with others showing a similar risk (see Scientific Committee on Tobacco andHealth, March 1998). It is also consistent with expected dose-risk response and adds tothe broad scientific consensus which holds that regular passive smoking increases lungcancer risk by 10-30%.

The reporting, which extensively quoted the tobacco company BAT, created a mediafirestorm as the story was picked up all over the world through syndication and theinternet Electronic Telegraph. ASH has seen several translations of the article and wehave received messages from as far afield as Brazil and Bangladesh indicating that thefalse reporting has been used for in tobacco industry PR activity. The Sunday Telegraphstory appeared three days before the release of the report of the Government’s ScientificCommittee on Tobacco and Health (SCOTH), which highlighted passive smoking risks, and waswidely recognised as a ‘spoiler’.

Press Complaints Commission. The authors of the study and the WHO immediatelyissued statements saying that the Sunday Telegraph claims were “false andmisleading”. However, as yet there has been no retraction, correction or apology bythe newspaper or the tobacco company. ASH complained to the Press Complaints Commission on25th March – there has still been no adjudication. Dominic Lawson, Editor of the SundayTelegraph, joined the Press Complaints Commission over the summer, replacing Sir DavidEnglish. We hope the publication of the study will hasten a final resolution of thiscomplaint and lead to a front-page retraction in the Sunday Telegraph.

Clive Bates, Director of ASH, said “The dreadful and inept reporting of the WHOpassive smoking study has caused doubt and confusion all over the world. It looks likedeliberate tobacco industry propaganda. Proper publication of the study at last nails thedisinformation, but a great deal of damage has already been done and we are still waitingfor the Sunday Telegraph to retract and apologise.”

[1] Boffetta P. et al Multicenter Case Control Study of Exposure to ETS and lung cancerin Europe, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol 90 No. 19 October 7th, 1998.




Contact Clive Bates, Director 0171 224 0743 or 0181 800 1336 (hm), 0468 791237 (mbl best on Sun.)
Amanda Sandford, Communications Director 0171 224 0743 or 0181 257 3501 (hm)

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