Sunday 13 September 2009

The worst junk stat of 2010?

It was with some incredulity that I read the following in The Sunday Times.

THE ban on public smoking has caused a fall in heart attack rates of about 10%, a study has found.

Researchers commissioned by the Department of Health have found a far sharper fall than they had expected in the number of heart attacks in England in the year after the ban was imposed in July 2007.

In Scotland, where the ban was introduced a year earlier, heart attack rates have fallen by about 14% because of the ban, separate research has shown. Similar results are expected in Wales where a third study is still under way.

It is quite astonishing to see the 'Scottish heart miracle' make its way into the pages of The Times again, since they are well aware that the study did not reflect the true rate of hospital admissions. 

Having reported the Dr Jill Pell's Scottish study in 2007 under the headline 'Non-smokers suffer fewer heart attacks after ban', the newspaper later included it as one of the Worst Junk Stats of 2007:

“Smoking ban cut heart attacks in Scotland by 17 per cent”, researchers and politicians trumpeted to the world in September through press releases, a conference and interviews, all faithfully reported. 

It was the ban what done it, they said... until six weeks later when official data halved the drop — to 8 per cent — against a trend immediately before the ban of a 5 or 6 per cent drop, and a fall a few years ago of 11. All of which makes it hard to be sure what, if any, effect the ban really had. The researchers went strangely silent.

Harsh reality made things worse for Dr Pell and her Scottish miracle the following year when the full hospital data was published by the NHS. Anyone who has followed this story will be aware that the heart attack rate did not fall by anywhere near 14% (this is a new figure, by the way, previously it was always 17%) and that the rate rose in year 2 of the ban. This seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of the theory that smoking bans immediately slashed the heart attack rate, as I wrote in Sp!ked earlier this year:

The Scottish ‘miracle’ has ceased to be. It is no more. It has gone up to join the choir invisible. If Pell hadn’t nailed it to its perch, it would be pushing up the daisies.

It is extraordinary - truly extraordinary - that a newspaper that has already had its fingers burnt with these silly heart attack stories is so willing to do so again. This is all the more so since the study will not be published until next year and is, in the researchers' own words, "incomplete". 

This is yet more - to use Michael Siegel's words - 'science by press release'. Dr Siegel has shown time and again that these heart attack studies are deeply flawed. The tricks used change from study to study but tricks they are. Not one of them can be considered to be serious science.

Will the English study be flawed? We can be sure of it if, as is claimed, it is going to make out that heart attacks fell by 10%. We know this because routine hospital data has (again) long-since been available. It shows no discernible difference in the heart attack rate before and after the smoking ban. This data was made available in February and I discussed it then. Dr Siegel showed English heart attack admissions in a graph (reproduced below), and wrote:

As one can see visually, there is absolutely no change in the trend of declining heart attack admissions in England during the first nine months during which the ban was in effect. There appears to be a relatively steady decline in heart attack admissions from 2002-2008, with no change associated with the smoking ban.

The decline in heart attack admissions from 2006-2007 to 2007-2008 was 3.7%, compared to declines of 3.7% in the preceding year and 3.8% in the year before that.

Thus, this analysis confirms that no matter how you look at it, there was no change in the rate of declines in heart attack admissions in England associated with the first nine months of the smoking ban.

It will be fascinating to see how the authors of this new study manage to turn 2% into 10%, but we shall have to wait several months. When it is finally published, I suspect that The Times will have a strong contender for its Worst Junk Stats of 2010 list.


Michael J. McFadden said...

Chris, I strongly agree with your thought that, "Will the English study be flawed? We can be sure of it..." even without your follow statistics. Unless, as is always possible in the antismoking world of cherry-picking, they've lucked on one of the one in twenty outliers. One of the great mysteries of antismoking research that we'll probably never know the true data for is just how many studies like this have been started and then aborted when the early answers didn't come out right.

It's kind of as is I were a con man trying to sell you a pair of loaded dice. I tell you, "These dice will roll a lot of 7's" and proceed to toss some rolls. I get a 6, then a 7, then a 9, an 8, a 10, a 3, and a 4. At that point I stop and say, "Sorry, I picked up the wrong pair... these were the controls." I go get another pair and do it again with similar results and a similar excuse. On the third set of dice I roll a 7, a 4, a 9, and then two 7s in a row and exclaim "Ahh! OK! This was the right pair! See, it rolls sevens 60% of the time. They're yours for a hundred bucks!"

And if you're an idiot you pay me and I pack up and hit the next bar to try it again. Maybe there I'll roll a few sevens straight off and charge $500.

People who believe in voodoo stuff will believe the medium who communicates details of their personal lives from their long-dead grandmother. Those who don't will know perfectly well that the medium has either cheated (maybe with the help of a P.I. or an accomplice who rifled their purse) or that they've made a couple of lucky guesses.

The Antismokers are little more than Voodoo Witch Doctors taking advantage of a gullible public and robbing their tax treasuries to pay for magic snake-oil. No more and no less.

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"

Christopher Snowdon said...

I have attempted to e-mail Jonathan Leake, the author of this story but have received a delivery failure notice.

It read:

Mr Leake,

As someone who has read The Sunday Times for over 20 years, I was surprised and disappointed to see your report claiming that heart attacks had "plummeted" since the smoking ban. While I appreciate that you cannot check every aspect of every story you are presented with, surely journalists have a responsibility to use some critical reasoning and present opposing viewpoints.

You were perhaps not aware that routine hospital data shows that there was no significant drop in the heart attack rate after the smoking ban in England. You may also not have been aware that other studies making similar claims have been shown to have serious flaws (see Dr Michael Siegel, Michael Blastland et al.). You should, however, have been aware that the Scottish study that you refer to was included in The Times' list of 'Worst Junk Stats of 2007' (22.12.07).

That being the case, it is irresponsible of your newspaper to report unpublished and "incomplete" research, when similar reports have embarrassed News International in the past.

The real story here is how and why certain individuals are producing studies that show the opposite of what is actually happening in the hospitals of England, Scotland and Wales. Reports such as yours seriously damage the credibility of The Sunday Times.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Snowdon

Leake is the Sunday Times' Science & Environment correspondent, which explains why the paper has descended into ludicrous climate change alarmism in the last year or so.

AW said...

I am waiting for my comment to be approved by the moderator. However Leake is lazy or a fool, perhaps both.

Anonymous said...

This is following page seven of the tobacco control handbook instructions to ban patio smoking AFTER business owners spent thousands of dollars to build them for their smoking customers instead of upfront. This clearly shows that these people have ABSOLUTLY NO CONCERN for local businesses. It's the "inside-out" provision on page seven. Once these people find gullible lawmakers and get a foot in the door, there;'s no stopping them.

BTS said...

I really did laugh when I read that article. Recycling previously debunked statistics is surely the laziest and most embarrassing forms of journalism going. Please do post the response if your e-mail eventually gets through and might I suggest a copy to the letters page?

helend498 said...

They must be on their last legs when they're resorting to quoting the most ridiculous piece of so-called 'science'.

I think the public have had enough of repeat a lie often enough and they'll believe it.

The public are a lot wiser than they think.

Anonymous said...

And now this is repeated on Radio 2 (about 6:45 this morning), together with the comment that it shows how 'pernicious' smoking really is. The lie is out and spreading.

Anonymous said...

This claim has appeared in the Mail (no comments yet) and the Metro today. The person behind these studies appears to be There doesn't appear to be any mention of the studies on her web page. I find all this absolutely astonishing.

Ann W. said...

Dr Anna Gilmore:
I am a member of various expert groups including the WHO Expert Committee on tobacco industry interference with policy, the Royal College of Physician’s Tobacco Advisory Group, the Council of ASH and the South West tobacco control alliance strategy group. I am also Theme director and Specialist Faculty Adviser for UICC’s Tobacco Academy and from January 2009 will move from the Editorial Advisory Board of Tobacco Control to become one of the journal’s senior editors.

She is also flushed with anti tobacco grant money totaling in the millions of pounds, so can anything she write be objective and unbiased?

Andy said...


I think maybe TC are trying to push through as much as they can while nu-labour are in power. The smoking ban review is nearly due as is the demise of new Labour, within the next 9 months. By having this sort of junk in the public consciousness, they can declare the ban a success, and who knows extend it further(outside, inside where kids are present etc)before the tax payer funded government lobbying is cut.
Lets hope it has the reverse effect and exposes the extremism needed to create and perpetuate the ban.