Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Smoking... The Old Global Warming?

There's a new Surgeon General's report out about the effects of secondhand smoke, and there's -- as is so often the case -- good news and bad news.

The bad news is that the health risks of secondhand smoke are even more profound than previously thought. There is no risk-free level of exposure, and children and people in poor health are especially at risk. Not only that, but 126 million of us are still exposed to secondhand smoke, despite the growing number of states and cities that fairly comprehensively ban smoking in public places and workplaces.

The good news is that there are all those states and localities that have acted to curb exposure, and there is, according to this report, little evidence that sweeping bans in places like Boston and New York have produced the economic damage to the hospitality industry that critics had feared.

But there's more good news, and it's related to another (you should pardon the expression) burning issue of the day: Nobody's trying to quash this report. As Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids puts it, "There is no longer a scientific controversy that secondhand smoke is a killer." Unlike with global warming, the Bush administration is not trying to silence or suppress this science; instead, the Government itself is the author of this report.

Last week my wife and I went to see An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary about global warming. It's an important film with a vital message (and it's also very entertaining; Gore's rep as a boring guy is undeserved), essentially a film treatment of Gore's dynamic and shocking climate change "slide show" (actually a very well done, high-tech presentation). Interspersed with the presentation are vignettes of Gore's life, focusing on the events that shaped his awareness of, and passion for, the issue of global climate change. One such event was the death of Gore's sister from lung cancer, after a lifetime of smoking. The Gore family had been tobacco farmers, and this loss opened their eyes; they were out of the tobacco business within a year.

Unfortunately, the tobacco industry at large wasn't quite as ready as the Gores to recognize their own state of denial. In ways eerily similar to the current climate change discussion, tobacco companies denied the clear scientific consensus on the dangers of smoking, and promoted the idea of scientific "controversy" where none actually existed. Sound familiar?

It took the good offices of federally funded researchers and the Surgeon General, along with the muscle of dozens of state attorneys general, to beat back challenges to smoking science; the really bad news is, this time around, with global warming, the Government is fighting against the science, not for it. Just ask James Hansen (or George Deutsch, if you can find him). The even worse news is that once the shackles were off, scientific research into the health effects of smoking (including this new report on secondhand smoke) showed us things were far worse than we had imagined. If the same thing happens when we win the fight (as we must) to free global climate change science, we're sunk.

Or at least, those of us within 20 feet of sea-level are. Think about it. Think hard.

Unit of the Day: The mgon is not a Klingon word; it's used to measure very small angles. The symbol for milligon, 1 mgon = 10-3 gon (gee, that's helpful, right?). The gon is another name for the grad, a measure equal to 0.01 right angle, or 0.9 degrees. Thus, the mgon = 0.0009 degrees, or 3.24 seconds of arc. Surveyors' instruments are often marked in mgons, but you're unlikely to see it on your kid's protractor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Thus, the mgon = 0.0009 degrees, or 3.24 seconds of arc"

Strange coincidence--the parsec--the paralax second that astronomers use to measure distance to stars--is 3.26 light years. If astronomers used the mgon for measuring angles, they would measure stellar distances in parmgons (I guess paramgons would be easier to pronounce), which would be almost exactly one light year. Which would save a lot of work converting between parsecs and light-years.

--Peter Alway