Truth or Fiction?
By Don Hank - February 16, 2012
According to UAB News, Associate professor Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama has discovered, in a longitudinal study of over 5000 marijuana smokers aged 18-30 years, that "marijuana smoke is not as damaging to lungs as cigarette smoke." In fact, the research also supposedly showed that occasionally inhaling small amounts of the combustion products of this dried weed can even enhance lung capacity.
That will be good news for our sons and daughters struggling against the ignorance and superstition of our benighted generation in their efforts to supplement their alcohol intake this semester and do so without guilt.
But for me, after reading through the hype and comparing it with the actual abstract of the study, it looks like just another example of research methodology on campus used to achieve a desired result. I am not necessarily impugning the researcher as much as those who seized upon the report with enthusiasm and an uncanny display of uncritical thought. As I have shown here and here, the scientific method (that is, actually looking at data objectively for the sole purpose of finding out the truth, no matter what that may be) has long been out of favor with the media. But as evidenced by the "Climategate" scandal at the University of East Anglia, it is none too popular even among a surprising percentage of scientists.
With this realization in mind, and also having read, translated and published (here, for example) a report by Portuguese doctors debunking that government's study fueling a Cato report "demonstrating" that drug decriminalization "works," and further, having had a pot-smoking friend - who did not use tobacco - die of lung cancer, I immediately smelled a rat.
Now, let me tell you a little about the profession of foreign language translation, which I have plied successfully full-time for over 40 years. In that time, I have translated medical and scientific texts for about 200 clients, including the American Cancer Society (translating reports from various countries in Europe on smoking and its effects in the induction of cancer, emphysema, "smoker's leg" and other maladies) and a fair number of drug companies (series of reports on assorted drugs).
One of my clients was also the NIH (National Institutes of Health). If you guessed that that agency's assignments were predominantly medical in nature, you are correct. For a few years of my career, reports on medical studies were the main topic. Caution: I cannot operate on your brain or prescribe liver pills for you. But I will tell you with full confidence: I know the methodology of medical studies. And I know when a research report is pulling my leg.
I can tell you with all sincerity that the media reports on Stefan Kertesz' studies on marijuana are misleading, and that is being overly generous. Sadly, the report on these studies in UAB News, a publication generally touting successes of persons affiliated with the University of Alabama, is also misleading to say the least. (Which is not necessarily to say that the researcher himself is at fault in this regard).
The headline proclaims: "Marijuana Smoke not as Damaging to Lungs as Cigarette Smoke." Now, did you immediately assume that the study shows equal amounts of marijuana smoke to be less damaging than equal amounts of tobacco smoke?
I did. Well, I didn't, but I would have if I had trusted such studies on illegal drugs since I read the Cato report and its thorough rebuttal by the Portuguese MDs who have studied the issue hands-on and met the actual patients (drug users). I have yet to see such a pro-drug study that is not a wide-eyed attempt to justify a bad habit generally endorsed by libertarians and political leftists - who righteously declare drug use of any kind to be a human right that is trampled by most governments generally recognized as legitimate (they think banning anything they like to do is unconstitutional).
So I decided to get a scientific report on the study. Not being a member of AMA, I am not privileged to download articles from JAMA.
However, I was able to obtain for free an abstract of the study from their site.
And lo and behold, what did I find that did not surprise me in the least?
It seems the author has come up with a creative new concept for measuring marijuana smoke exposure. He calls it the "joint year," and he defines a joint year as 365 joints or filled pipe bowls. He calls this a "moderately high use level."
Now, of course, in the course of his study, Kertesz no doubt encountered a few subjects who smoked more than these 365 joints per year. But you can see from this definition of a "joint year" that the assumption was for many subjects to have smoked about one joint a day, give or take a few.
One media report quoted the Associated Press as saying that the study:
".has concluded that smoking cannabis once a week or even more does not harm the lungs."
The term "even more" is not defined and is therefore meaningless, except as propaganda. But aside from that, if only smoking cannabis once a week is to be compared with what smokers ordinarily do, then the conclusion trumpeted in UAB News ("marijuana smoke is not as damaging to lungs as cigarette smoke") does not fly. (Most cigarette smokers smoke more than one cigarette a day. You probably knew that).
Of course, there is an outside chance that Kertesz actually did compare the results of smoking 1 joint a day for year-long periods with the results of smoking 1 cigarette a day for year-long periods, but I found no evidence of that. And I can't imagine where he would have gotten those one-a-day smokers as test subjects.
But here is the most serious flaw in the report that cannabis is less harmful than cigarette smoke: What do we fear most about smoking? Why, cancer, right? Now, the most convincing studies done by cancer researchers are longitudinal studies done on people over a period long enough to induce cancer. Most are seniors when they are stricken -- not in the range of 18-30 as used in the Alabama study. In the papers I translated from the Cancer Society, the most feared carcinogen (cancer causing agent) in cigarette smoke was always said to be benzo(a)pyrene. Mice whose shaved backs were painted with the stuff got cancer. So if marijuana smoke contains benzo(a)pyrene, then it is carcinogenic, right? Well, to find out, I did a search.
One of the sites I brought up was run by people who liked to experiment with drugs. It showed a study by the Institute of Medicine and Health. It showed results of a chemical analysis of cigarette and marijuana smokes. You'll never guess which smoke contained the most benzo(a)pyrene.
No, not cigarette smoke, which prompted the government to sue the cigarette industry for billions. It was the smoke that Bill Clinton said he never inhaled. Here are the results:
[benzo(a)pyrene in] marijuana: 31 ng
[benzo(a)pyrene in] tobacco: 22 ng
Gee, marijuana contains about a third more of the chief carcinogen than cigarettes and our University of Alabama news letter declares marijuana smoke to the "less damaging."
I predict that sometime in the not-too-distant future, after all this hype about the harmlessness of marijuana has taken its toll, persuading legions of gullible young people to indulge in this "safe" habit, someone in medical science with high powers of observation and the courage to swim upstream will do a study on marijuana smokers and cancer and discover that the older heavier users are getting lung cancer right and left.
At any rate, I will not be advising either of my kids to smoke a joint a day while in college. However, I may tell them to study as hard as they can in a down economy when an alarmingly high percentage of graduates are failing to find jobs in their professions and are saddled for years with college loan payments.
You'd think some researcher somewhere would find the time to study the correlation between not smoking anything at all and not drinking alcohol on student grade levels and chances of graduating from college, as contrasted with a control group of students who indulge in these practices.
I won't hold my breath for such a breakthrough study. Nor will I expect much improvement in the academic performance of US students over the next few years. At least not judging by their role models on campus.
You can contact Dr. Stefan Kertesz, the author of the Alabama pot report and encourage him to do a study among elderly persons who have smoked pot most of their lives. Tell him you would expect to see a strong correlation between lung cancer and heavy pot use: email@example.com
And you can contact the writer of the above mentioned article on marijuana at U. of Alabama and let her know your thoughts (or send her a link to this article): firstname.lastname@example.org