Friday, February 13, 2004

Smoking sperm

Smoking damages almost all aspects of sexual, reproductive and child health, according to a new report out from the British Medical Association (BMA). Impotence, sperm damage, infertility, miscarriage, premature birth, low-weight birth and early menopause are all associated with smoking. Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said: 'The sheer scale of damage that smoking causes to reproductive and child health is shocking. Women are generally aware that they should not smoke while pregnant but the message needs to be far stronger. Men and women who think they might want children one day should bin cigarettes.'

It is true that smoking is bad for your health. Even the most blinkered tobacco lover is aware of this. But a sense of perspective is required. While smoking may increase the likelihood of health problems, this risk is relative; and the vast majority of smokers do not have any more problems having children than anybody else.

The BMA report quotes various studies that suggest that smoking increases the risk of impotence. The BMA report suggests that in the UK 120,000 men between the ages of 20 and 40 - around 11 per cent of male smokers in that age group - are impotent. But this is strictly an estimate, based on a number of assumptions - for example, that research done on veterans of the Vietnam War is applicable to twenty-first century Britain, and that figures for impotency rates for non-smokers are accurate. Moreover, all that such figures can tell us is that there may be a correlation between people who smoke and impotence, not that one causes the other.

The promotion of a link between smoking and sexual health is driven by a desire to bring down smoking rates among younger people who have remained relatively untouched by the campaigns about the impact of lung and heart disease later on in life, and bad breath and smelly clothes in the here and now. By appealing to a concern about male virility in the near future, this smacks of a base attempt to play on sexual confidence in order to promote a public health outcome.

The notion that we might balance small risks against small pleasures is rarely even considered in today's uptight times. These doctors undoubtedly feel they have our best interests at heart, but a busybody is still a busybody, however well qualified he might be.

Smoking and reproductive life, British Medical Association, February 2004

(First published on Spiked's Don't panic page.

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