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Friday, February 01, 2008

The smoking statistician

The other day my daughter Carrie sent me this interesting bit of trivia on the field of statistics:

“Today in English we discussed some stuff that you should put in your blog. We are reading a book about the history of cigarettes.* It is pretty dry, but there are some interesting things. We discussed the first Surgeon General’s panel, which was set up like a jury. Each side (tobacco and anti-tobacco lobbyists) was allowed to eliminate possible panel members as they saw fit. The final panel included a statistician. The man was also a smoker, and after seeing the results of the studies he announced that based on the statistical evidence, despite pleas from his friends and family, the emotional benefits outweighed the health risks.

Here is the relevant passage:
‘In spite of the findings, as well as the urgings of his fellow committee members and the entreaties of his wife and daughter, Cochran relied on his own statistical analysis to support his decision to continue smoking. Having smoked for a long time, he could not become a statistical non-smoker, only a former smoker. Quitting now, he reasoned, would reduce his chances of succumbing to lung cancer from 40 percent higher than a non-smoker's to 24 percent. 'I think the comfort of my cigarettes is worth that 16 percent chance,' he explained. He nonetheless conceded that he would probably cut down, and he noted that, 'I certainly intend to see that my children never start.'

It sounds like the kind of crazy statistician logic that you would use! Cochran is William Cochran, and the panel was during the Kennedy administration.”

Cochran co-authored a book on Experimental Designs, so I'd heard of him (the American Statistical Association offers this detailed bio). I like this observation of Cochran about response surface methods (RSM): "... polynomials are notoriously untrustworthy when extrapolated." Before Carrie's heads-up I remained unaware of Cochran’s connection to the U.S. Public Health Service Advisory Committee formed in 1963 to research the effects of smoking on lung cancer. His cavalier attitude about being addicted to tobacco reminds me of a very sharp programmer who smoked. When hassled about the potential costs in terms of taxpayer-funded health care, his comeback was that smoking kills people at a younger age and thus reduces the ultimate medical expense!

*A Cigarette Century: the Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America by Allan M. Brandt.

"THE single most shattering statistic about life in America in the late 1990s was that tobacco killed more people than the combined total of those who died from AIDS, car accidents, alcohol, murder, suicide, illegal drugs and fire."
-- Lead statement from The Economist article An evil weed which features Brandt and his book.

PS.As much as smoking turns me off, I must admit to enjoying Jason Reitman’s movie Thank You for Smoking, which featured an astute lobbyist (played by Aaron Eckhart) who could turn any shot right back at the anti-tobacco forces. It is very amusing to see him skewer the self-righteous Senator (actor William H. Macy).


  • At 2:44 AM, Anonymous Eric Kvaalen said…

    I think his statistics were wrong. He says that his chance of getting lung cancer is 24% or 40% higher than that of a non-smoker. But I think the figure is now known to be a lot higher. According to Wikipedia's article on lung cancer, only about 10% of people with lung cancer are non-smokers!

    He doesn't mention heart disease and other diseases of the cardiovascular system, which are a bigger risk than lung cancer.

    Also, it is now known that quitting smoking fairly quickly reduces your chances of developing smoking-related diseases.


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