Smoking ban advocacy journalism, Chron style

The Chronicle's Dina Cappiello reported the following in yesterday's Chronicle:

Testing for 31 different chemicals at nine city watering holes, a University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center doctor who is also an anti-smoking advocate found that customers are likely getting a breath of carcinogenic benzene along with their beer, and nearly a dozen other chemicals from cigarette smoke.

Most of the levels detected were higher than those found in 10 smoke-free restaurants, 10 eating establishments with smoking sections, and outdoors during the eight-hour test on a Saturday evening in January.

"There is a measurable line that goes from smoke-free restaurants to smoking restaurants to the bar," said Dr. Joel Dunnington, an associate professor at M.D. Anderson. "The bar is really out there."

The results, requested by the Houston Chronicle, have not been reviewed by other scientists. But they come as the city is weighing a nonsmoking ordinance that would ban smoking in indoor dining areas but allow it in bars and restaurants with bars.

[snip]

Dunnington's research, one of the first local studies on the chemicals released from smoking indoors, lends some scientific support to an all-out ban.

The concentration of benzene, a carcinogen, was twice as high in bars as outside and in smoke-free restaurants. Bars had nearly five times more methyl ethyl ketone, which can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, than outside, and twice as much methyl ethyl ketone than smoke-free restaurants. Some of the other compounds, such as limonene and pinene, which could come from scented cleaners, were not higher in bars and are not harmful.

From the information presented in this article, one cannot reach the bolded conclusion of the reporter (who should stick to reporting, not analyzing). That's because the Chronicle reporter did not give any detailed concentration data, or any benchmark data. To wit, a concentration of methyl ethyl ketone that is five times greater than a trivial amount might be significantly harmful -- or it might just be a trivial amount. Likewise, a concentration of methyl ethyl ketone or benzene two times greater than a trivial amount might be significantly harmful -- or it might not. We can't decide without raw numbers and benchmark data, which aren't provided.

The reporter probably doesn't understand environmental science well enough for the point I've made to register. The reporter's editors should have, though. The result is that the reporter presented information that probably seems ominous to the average reader, but isn't robust enough to draw any health-related conclusions. It's not the first time the newspaper has sensationalized data in advocating for a smoking ban, although at least it did so on the editorial page last time.

UPDATE: Relative to the first sentence of the last paragraph, a reader points me to this biographical information on the reporter, which I had not seen. One would think a reporter with those credentials would understand environmental science well enough not to make an elementary mistake. Still, the mistake was made. I was mistaken and perhaps overly generous in speculating it was made out of ignorance. There was no intent to disparage or discredit the reporter's credentials in the previous paragraph.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/24/05 10:07 PM | Print |

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