CBC ombudsman: Be careful what you claim from a scientific study

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombdudsman

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombdudsman

The Sunday Edition featured an essay by host Michael Enright about a new study that questions the link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer. The host talked about the Stanford study in the context of the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Surgeon General’s report on lung cancer and smoking. He overstated the conclusion of the study when he said second-hand smoke does not cause lung cancer. The public health community complained in large numbers. The program clarified the statement on its website and on air. One group of complainants, represented by Garfield Mahood, President of Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud, asked for a review. They felt the essay and its retraction were inaccurate and that there was a bias and an attack on anti-smoking activists, who he said prefer to be called tobacco control advocates. I found the items did not live up to CBC policy on science reporting but there was no evidence of bias.


As the president of the Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud, and on behalf of a group of other individuals largely involved in public health and tobacco control policy, you complained about an essay delivered by host Michael Enright on the January 19 broadcast of The Sunday Edition. There was also a separate complaint from the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health of the Association of Local Health Agencies in Ontario. The group represents all medical health officers in the province.

You were alarmed that Mr. Enright referred to a Stanford University study that questioned the link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer. You thought he was wrong to do so, and that he got many of his facts wrong as well. “His editorial, presented with the authority of a magisterial bull, is both ignorant and irresponsible,” you said.

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Enright had used the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking and cancer to talk about a new study on second-hand smoke conducted by researchers at Stanford University. You pointed out that the study had not yet been peer reviewed and therefore should not have been cited. His essay, which you characterized as “a rant,” was based on a news report of a discussion of the study at a conference. The Surgeon General and many other peer reviewed studies affirm a link between lung cancer and second-hand smoke, and there was no mention of this fact. You wrote:

There have been dozens of peer-reviewed articles on the subject in question published in the last two decades. Using a “weight of evidence” approach standard in epidemiology, the Surgeon General concluded in 1986 and reaffirmed in both 2006 and 2014 that SHS does cause cancer in non-smokers.

You also pointed out that Enright was wrong when he stated that the 1964 Surgeon General’s report “established for the first time the clear linkage between smoking and lung cancer.” You said that the first time a causal relationship was established was in a report of the U.K. College of Physicians and Surgeons two years earlier.

You also thought he “demeaned ‘anti-smoking activists’ by attributing to them the fact that ‘second hand smoke kills,’” and going on to say no it doesn’t. You pointed out that it wasn’t anti-smoking activists who made the link, but scientists and epidemiologists:

Mr. Enright attributes the finding that SHS can cause morbidity and mortality in non-smokers to these same “anti-smoking activists”. Overlook on this occasion that “anti-smoking” is tobacco industry language designed to associate tobacco control work with the “antis” of the alcohol prohibition movement. On its face, Mr. Enright’s accusation about who originated the finding is both ridiculous and mischievous. Tobacco control activists did not create the evidence that SHS kills. That conclusion is the finding of respected researchers, the Surgeon General and other prestigious authorities, and reflects the work of the field of epidemiology in several countries. The so-called “anti-smoking activists” have simply been acting in the public interest by educating the public about this significant risk. If not captured by substantial bias, why would Mr. Enright object to smokers being informed that their spouses, children, or co-workers are subject to a significant risk from SHS?

As further evidence of Mr. Enright’s bias you accused him of using descriptors that are “tobacco industry language designed to associate tobacco control work with the ‘antis’ of the alcohol prohibition movement.” You feel that the term “tobacco control community” is more neutral and that is your preferred term of reference.

Mr. Enright clarified some of the points he initially made in a second broadcast on February 2, but you felt it was inadequate and did not address your main concerns.

You also went on to cite other programming from ten years ago to prove a history of bias. Please note I will not refer to anything other than the matter at hand. The Ombudsman’s website clearly states complaints must be made within a year of broadcast. It is my responsibility to consider the policy issues raised in your complaint about this broadcast.


The Executive Producer of The Sunday Edition, Susan Mahoney, responded to your complaints. She did not agree with your assessment of the essay but said she “did agree with you in one respect.” She said the essay “could have been clearer.” She explained the program had taken steps on air and on its web site to “ensure that it is.”

She clarified that Mr. Enright did not defend smoking or say that second-hand smoke was harmless:

In fact, what he said is that the widespread passage of laws restricting where people can smoke is sensible. And he emphasized that second-hand smoke likely exacerbates lung conditions such as emphysema and asthma.

She explained that Enright and the program referenced the Stanford study because an account of it had been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and that the editors of that “prestigious” journal thought the “results as sufficiently significant that they approved an article summarizing them.” She pointed out that the scientists involved in the Stanford study are “respected medical researchers” and the report is in the process of peer review. The essay was written to mark the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s report, she said, and it was in that context that this new study was noted. She acknowledged that the 2014 Surgeon General report, and many others, confirm a link between second-hand smoke and cancer, but that was not what was newsworthy in this case:

But it is against this background that Mr. Enright set the surprising conclusions of a newsworthy new study that appears to contradict that widely-accepted knowledge.

She acknowledged that this study is not conclusive, but the findings are “intriguing and newsworthy” because they “run counter to the accepted wisdom on the subject and if confirmed may mean a re-evaluation of the risks we associate with second-hand smoke. That was the point of the essay.”

To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman's website where this was originally published.

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