Friday, April 11, 2003

SARS update

The individual countries are those with more than 10 cases, the total is a global total.

That's roughly 33 extra deaths in one week, across nations with combined populations of over two billion. In Britain alone, there are roughly ten thousand deaths per week from all causes.

Passive smoking

A new report suggests that 12,000 people in the UK die each year as a result of breathing second-hand tobacco smoke (SHS) (1). The report, produced for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the TUC, further notes that among the UK's 53,000 bar workers, '17 percent will die from passive smoking during their working lifetime'. It is suggested that there are about 900 deaths among office workers and 146 deaths among manufacturing workers due to SHS. The conclusion is that there must be a ban on smoking in all workplaces, as improved ventilation could never be adequate to make workplaces completely safe.

Even by the standards of the passive smoking debate, this report is alarmist. The link between second-hand smoke and ill-health has always been controversial. Even in cases where a link has been made, the figures suggested have always been lower. For example, the British Medical Association (BMA) produced a report in November 2002 that suggested a death toll of around 1000 in the UK each year. It is remarkable that the new report has produced a figure 12 times greater.

While a link between SHS and a slightly increased level of illness seems plausible on the surface, no link has ever been proven. Even where studies have found an increased risk of cancer, the increase has been too small to be practically significant. ASH's website suggests the risk of lung cancer for non-smokers is about 10 cases per 100,000 people (1 in 10,000) (2). An ASH factsheet from July 2002 suggests that 'Non-smokers who are exposed to passive smoking in the home, have a 25 percent increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer' (3). In other words, 12.5 cases per 100,000 population (1 in 8,000).

Moreover, studies that show no link are often not published. When these were taken into account by researchers at the University of Warwick, the relative increase in risk fell to about 15 percent (4). An effect this small would usually be dismissed as potentially the product of other kinds of research bias. For this reason, researchers are usually advised to treat with extreme scepticism increases in risk of less than 100 percent.

For anti-smoking campaigners, the passive smoking debate is a perfect stick to beat smokers with. It suggests that, even if a smoker doesn't care about their own health, he should be more careful as regards the health of others. The argument seems to have been very successful, as recent proposals for outright bans on public smoking in New York and Norway suggest. But is it really the place of the authorities to micro-manage our lives through dubious morality dressed up as science?

(1) A killer on the loose [pdf format, 600KB], ASH
(2) Factsheet no.5: smoking and respiratory disease, ASH, July 2001
(3) Factsheet no. 8: passive smoking, ASH, July 2002
(4) Passive smoking risk 'overstated', BBC News, 11 February 2000

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Communicating the War on Terror

I am currently working on the website (in my guise as jobbing web designer) for this forthcoming conference, being organised by the Centre for Defence Studies at Kings College London. Basically, it is asking how governments should communicate with the public when they need to show that they are doing something about terrorist threats while justifying those actions, and at the same time not overstating the threats. It should be a fascinating illustration of what happens when the risk society meets practical policy.

The conference will be held at the Royal Institution in London on 5 and 6 June. Speakers confirmed to date include Lawrence Freedman, Onora O'Neill, Pat Troop, Chris Hedges, Mick Hume and Susan Scholefield.

(Oh, and if you don't like the way the site looks at the moment, neither do I - it's only a holding page at present.)

Communicating the War on Terror

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Some good news: Hashmi appeal successful

Raj and Shahana Hashmi are a couple whose son, Zain, suffers from a rare blood disorder which requires a bone marrow transplant. They have been unsuccessful in finding a match for their son and wanted to use IVF to pre-select an embryo whose bone marrow would match his. The treatment was challenged in the courts by a pro-life group, Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE). The High Court ruled against the Hashmis and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which had licenced the treatment, in December 2002. That decision has now been overturned on appeal by the Court of Appeal.

I hope that the Hashmis are successful in having a child that is a match and that all concerned go on to healthy and happy lives. At a time when precaution and anti-science sentiment seem to have such a hold, this is a welcome development.

Having said that, it is a pity that the HFEA have singularly failed to cover themselves in glory by refusing similar applications in the past, as Josie Appleton points out.

'Designer baby' ban quashed, BBC News, 8 April 2003

Another good article on SARS

Stuart Derbyshire has written a follow-up article on spiked about SARS. A well-balanced piece, it makes the point that there are sensible precautions to be taken against SARS (especially for high-risk groups, like health workers in affected countries) but that the biggest problem has been the panic reaction to it.

And I liked his brief swipe at the precautionary principle so much that I've nicked it for this site.

Pandemic of precaution, by Stuart Derbyshire

The utter degeneration of the trade union movement

I was never really in a position to appreciate trade unions. In my first full-time job, as a solicitor's clerk, I decided to join the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF). I paid a month's dues, then realised that it would make not one jot of difference to my position in life. However, it is clear that for their many problems, trade unions in the UK have managed to provide some defence to pay and conditions for their members.

How times have changed. Rarely do unions actually talk about pay and conditions and, when they do, they seem organisationally incapable of doing anything about them. Instead, they are at the very forefront of two of the worst trends in modern society: the elevation of risk, and the compensation culture. This is illustrated by the 100th issue of the TUC's newsletter for safety officers, Risks. While the history of trade unionism is the struggle for ordinary people to overcome their circumstances, the modern organisations are a rallying call to human frailty: bullying, passive smoking, workplace violence, RSI, back strain. You name it, there is no issue about which employers and government can't do more to intervene in people's lives. And how many high-profile negligence cases are funded by unions?

Trades Union Congress - Risks 100