Smoke, Sex and Suicide

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

My regular newspaper column typically draws questions of concern and confusion to the man in the street. Occasionally, however, they hit upon topics that stymie even the geniuses among us. Take a look at three recently received items that, because of special interests and media hype, are currently fooling even the brightest of the brights.

Just how harmful is second-hand smoke?

The largest and longest study (Enstrom & Kabat) followed more than 35,000 subjects for almost 40 years, and found no significant risk associated with second-hand smoke. Similarly, the World Health Organization spent seven years at a dozen research centers in seven countries, and came to the same conclusion. But just think for a moment about how very hard it is to measure one's exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.

The exposure of a woman married to a two-pack a day guy living in sunny SoCal, where doors/windows remain open for much of the year, will differ significantly from a similar wife living in Vermont where houses are sealed tight for the six month winters. It's extremely difficult to design a valid experiment when you wind up comparing apples with oranges.

Anyway, I called the American Cancer Society and, after a while, got through to a few upper-level types. But my question - Why haven't we seen a decline in lung cancer deaths despite Draconian anti-smoking legislation? - went unanswered. They all were ... uncomfortable would be a polite word, but terrified would be closer to the truth ... talking to the media, and referred me to a Public Relations person who hadn't a clue.

I got a promise (several in fact) of: "I'll get back to you on that", but never heard another word. The tricky bit here is obvious. If they say deaths have decreased, they're looking at cuts in contributions. If they say deaths haven't decreased, then one must wonder if their assumptions regarding tobacco are just plain out wrong.

Personally, I don't see how filling your lungs with hot smoke wouldn't be harmful, yet researchers rarely feel that way or make that connection when you talk about marijuana. So, I have to wonder - bottom line - about genetic pre-dispositions to cancer. Are some people hair-trigger loaded to come down with lung cancer if they're exposed to lots of smoke, a little smoke or no smoke at all? It would explain why some people smoke all their lives and suffer not at all, while others don't smoke and suffer respiratory disorders. It would also explain why Asians (Chinese and Japanese smoke all the time) don't have anywhere near the same rate of lung cancer deaths that Americans do.

It seems clear that a case can be made for today's mostly emotional response to smokers being just another example of Political Correctness. I don't smoke, I never smoked and, with the current price of cigarettes, I don't plan to start. Furthermore, I'd prefer that people around me didn't smoke. However, I'd be less than honest if I said my aversion to second-hand smoke was anything more than a personal bias, or that it was based on any hard scientific fact.

Just how rampant is the AIDS epidemic that was predicted to wipe out half of America by now?

The fact that the AIDS epidemic is not as advertised was reported in the mainstream media with a "Real Risk" article (Reader's Digest - May, '92), and an "Exaggerated Risk" piece (Wall Street Journal - May, '96) years ago. Books such as The Great AIDS Hoax (T.C. Fry), The AIDS Indictment (M.R. Kitzerow), and What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? (C. Maggiore), have gone into far greater detail, while acknowledged experts such as Drs. Peter Duesberg, Charles Thomas, Kary Mullis, Robert Willner and hundreds of other scientists have banded together in The Group for the Reevaluation of the AIDS Hypothesis. And yet the public continues to believe.

Part of the reason for this unyielding faith involves money and power. More than $150 billion in federal funding alone has been divided among many thousands of individuals and associations all too eager to perpetuate popular panic. This says nothing of charitable agencies, corporate campaigns, research facilities, and special interest groups which, when combined, make AIDS an economic and political phenomenon that one questions only at one's considerable peril.

And yet two very simple questions should be enough to start most people thinking. 1) Is AIDS a new disease? No, it's actually 30 old diseases (such as tuberculosis and pneumonia) with known causes and established treatments. 2) Does HIV cause AIDS? No, after more than 20 years and more than 40 hypothesis explored, a scientifically acceptable proof does not exist. In fact, HIV tests do not detect the HIV virus. They detect antibodies common to 60 conditions including herpes, malaria, arthritis, hepatitis, the flu and pregnancy.

Once one understands the vested interests that are determined to keep the myth going, and the less than critical masses who are determined to believe what they're told, it's easy to see why HIV/AIDS will be with us for a long, long time - though not as an epidemic.

Just how dangerous are anti-depressant drugs, and what about the new connection to suicide?

The "new" connection to which you refer isn't new at all. Those reasonably conversant with the clinical end of mental health have always known that, when it comes to depression, the very act of getting better carries a very real risk. The reason for this is quite simple. A patient suffering from depression is down in every sense of the word - both physically and mentally. It becomes extraordinarily difficult to engage in problem solving behavior, and even something as natural as getting out of bed in the morning demands a maximum effort. What's worse, this debilitated state feeds on itself. One feels too worn out to do anything, and not doing anything wears one out. It's a vicious cycle.

To make the point, consider the following statements that are typically made by a truly depressed person:

And now, let's consider what happens when this person starts to improve. Where previously it was difficult to follow a train of thought, the patient begins to consider his situation. Where previously it was difficult to put one foot in front of the other, the patient begins to feel energy returning. It is at this juncture that perhaps the greatest hazards lie. Just think about it.

If the person feels life has lost its meaning, suicide becomes much more of a threat. Where before the patient was too depressed to get out of his own way, he can now form a plan and act upon the same. So too if he feels he's been wronged by an individual or a group, or even by society in general. As depression decreases, the likelihood of retaliation increases. It is during this intermediate state - between falling down exhaustion and completely restored health - that overt acts of hostility can occur. These can be directed internally, as in suicide, or externally, as in homicide.

At this point, one may well wonder why there isn't always some violence associated with depression since it seems to be a normal part of getting better? The reason is that, most of the time, depression is simply the result of a chemical imbalance. It has nothing to do with what's going on in the world.

The patient feels awful but has no idea why. The tendency then is to look for a reason. While a headache out of the blue will be accepted, crying without cause is troubling. People can accept a body part acting up, but when their brain starts behaving funny, it's scary. Typically they invent a cause, and while "I'm a failure" or "My co-workers are oppressing me" makes sense at the time, it makes less and less sense as they improve. Hence there's usually no problem. It's only when there are legitimate difficulties going into depression that there's the possibility of trouble coming out of depression.

All of this is, as I said at the beginning, nothing new. Today's drugs may make the connection between depression and disaster more apparent, but that's mostly because they are so effective. Old-fashioned talk-therapy goes so slowly, and is so ineffective, that a patient coming out of a funk has more than sufficient time to adjust. Modern psycho pharmaceuticals can act so quickly as to make patients better before they're ready to be better. But the greatest threat, by far, is the uninformed legislation and willful litigation that will probably occur, and that will certainly hamper future treatment.

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