Monday, 16 August 2010

Four degrees of separation

Obesity gains ground in the fight for funding in the United States. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is now spending over ten times as much on obesity as on anti-smoking.

The rationale for designated smoking areas was based on the stated premise that secondhand smoke is medically dangerous to nearby people who might inhale the fumes.

There is no question that secondhand smoke can be unpleasant; few nonsmokers want to sit in a cloud of tobacco dust or have tobacco smell on their clothing or hair. But is it dangerous to your health? A study of 35,561 spouses of smokers followed for 38 years published in the British Medical Journal in 2003 showed that second-hand smoke is an irritant, but does not cause life-threatening disease. Actually, "secondhand eating" may be more dangerous.

With it so far. But it continues:

When people with whom we are closely associated gain weight, such as a spouse, sibling, neighbor or friend, we are also at an increased risk of gaining weight. For example, if your friend becomes obese, you have a 177 percent increased risk of becoming obese. If your friend's brother becomes obese, your risk is still increased. The increased risk goes out to four degrees of separation.

Okay. But what happens if they lose weight? And why is your friend putting on weight if you're not putting on weight?

As usual with such absurdly focussed studies, this leaves more questions than answers.

Secondary smoke has allegedly left one thousand a year dead in Scotland and seventy-nine thousand in Europe, without us knowing with any certainty who any of these people are. It is nice that Dennis Gottfried points out that smoke is actually only an irritant, even if only to convey the idea that obesity is a more urgent problem than smoking these days.

If this is any indication of the quality of 'obesity-related science', it looks even more akin to witchcraft and/or guesswork than the 'science' of secondary smoke.

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