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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 24th September 2011

Yesterday, I blogged about how someone arguing against the claim that the war on drugs had failed demonstrated by her argument that the war on drugs had failed. Today, I’ve been reading about smoking and young people and, as part of that, came across someone else making an argument they, probably, didn’t realise they were making.

But, we’ll come back to that later. First, I want to look at a story that appeared a few days ago based on a paper published in the journal Thorax. The BBC headlined its coverage of the paper ‘Smoking in films 'encourages teenagers to take it up'’ while the Guardian went for ‘Smoking in films 'should get automatic 18 rating'’.

I’ve given links to those two stories but I would encourage you to read this coverage from NHS Choices  because it is both more detailed and more balanced.

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

In barest summary, the research found that there was a correlation between teenagers seeing smoking in movies and smoking themselves. Note, it was a correlation not causation. No-one associated with the research is saying that seeing smoking in films is what caused the teenagers to smoke though, unsurprisingly, some of those attacking the conclusions are doing so by arguing that there is no causation.

The ‘Health News’ section of the NHS Choices website is an excellent service because it looks at health news stories that have appeared in the press and analyses them in enough detail to get to what the story really is but in language that the layman can understand. It is well-worth bookmarking the introductory page and turning to it every time there is a report in the press about some medical breakthrough or other.

On the smoking in movies story, for example, NHS Choices points out that the ‘headline’ 73% claimed increase in the likelihood of smoking in teens who have seen films where smoking is depicted comes down to 32% when you eliminate confounders. But, even a 32% increase looks significant and is enough for the researchers to suggest that films depicting smoking should be classified ‘18’, for adults only.

The BMJ Group, owners of the journal Thorax, are to be congratulated for realising that a paper with such importance for public policy should be freely available so you can read the actual research here.

The researchers themselves say that, in calling for this change to classification, they are following a precautionary principle. Though they don’t claim that their work demonstrates a causal link, they do point out that other researchers have made that claim and that the current work finds no reason to question those earlier findings. There has been work in a number of countries looking at smoking depiction and teenagers so this latest work does not stand on its own.

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

In the authors’ view, there is enough information to suggest that there may be a benefit in restricting the depiction of smoking on screen and, when it comes to something as dangerous as smoking, it makes sense to see if that benefit can be obtained for the whole population.

As you would expect, the suggestion that movies should be re-classified has been attacked by those opposed to any form of control on tobacco as well as those who feel their commercial interests could be harmed by a move making it harder for teenagers to access the products they are selling. Opponents have focussed on the more comic possibilities of such a reclassification, such as ‘101 Dalmatians’ becoming an ‘18’ rated film just because Cruella de Vil has a long cigarette holder.

The position taken by one of those arguing against any recognition of the possibility that some teenagers may initiate smoking because they see it on screen is what I referred to in my opening paragraph.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Harry Phibbs mocks the notion that 17-year olds need to be protected from ‘101 Dalmatians’ and then concludes ‘This is about liberty and truth’...’But thought control is the wrong way to pursue tobacco control’.

Let’s leave aside the point that ‘thought control’ when it comes to children and teenagers can also be called ‘parenting’ because what parents do is shape the way their offspring think about everything in the world. The point that interests me is that the Daily Mail should be hosting a call for ‘truth and liberty’ when it consistently distorts the truth on matters related to psychoactive substances and denies people the liberty to choose for themselves on these matters.