Thursday, May 25, 2006

Smoke...and Mirrors

I saw a Reuters story last night with this arresting headline: 'Sleeper effect' of cigarettes can last for years. Sounds pretty scary, and it is:
Scientists have discovered that a single cigarette has a "sleeper effect" that can increase a person's vulnerability for three years or more to becoming a regular smoker (emphasis added).
The scientists don't know for sure why a single cigarette can have such an effect, but they hypothesized that "exposure to nicotine could change pathways in the brain which could make children more vulnerable to stress or depression, which can make them more likely to try it again."

All cause for alarm, surely, until you take a closer look at the study itself. The scientists looked at over 2,000 kids between 11 and 16 over a five-year period. Here's what they found:
Of the 260 children who by age 11 had tried one cigarette, 18 percent were regular smokers by the time they reached 14. But only seven percent of 11-year-olds who had never smoked had taken up the habit three years later.
The Reuters write-up says nothing about the scientific evidence for changing pathways in the brain or a physiological predilection to nicotine addiction for kids who have smoked one cigarette. What these scientists discovered, after all is said and done, is that kids who dabble with smoking at a very young age are more likely to become regular smokers than kids who did not dabble. No kidding. How is this even news? What's next for Reuters? "Study Shows One Day Lasts 24 Hours"?

There are a number of reasons why 11-year-olds sneaking a smoke behind the woodshed are more likely to become smokers than kids who don't exhibit this kind of behavior, and they don't have anything to do with brain chemistry. Perhaps the tiny tokers think that smoking is cool while the diminutive do-gooders do not. Maybe the puny puffers have access to smokes while the pristine pre-teens don't. Could it be that the leather-faced lads are just humongous idiots?

The Reuters story makes no mention of any attempt by the scientists to examine the socio-cultural or attitudinal differences between the tobacco tots and smoke-free set. One would think that these issues would loom large in any such study. Thanks to the super-compartmentalization of the academic world, the science science folks and the social science folks probably never cross paths, and Occam's Razor is just left out to rust. So, this is either a case of stupid science or, if Reuters just didn't mention the social science aspect, stupid journalism—quite possibly both.
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