Is Something in Tobacco Protective Against Parkinson’s Disease?
“Is Something in Tobacco Protective
Against Parkinson’s Disease?” The CDC recently celebrated
the 50-year anniversary of the landmark 1964 Surgeon
General’s report on smoking, considered one of the greatest public
health achievements of our time, the first of 30 other such reports from
the Surgeon General on smoking. Internal tobacco industry memos
document their response. Major criticisms of
the report include a cavalier treatment
of the costs of smoking. The Surgeon General argues that
smoking costs the U.S. nation billions, but the tobacco industry notes that
smoking saves the country money by increasing the number of people
dying soon after retirement so we don’t have to pay for like
Social Security and Medicare. In fact, if we were truly patriotic, maybe we should be encouraging
smoking to help balance the budget. But they also criticized
the Surgeon General for a lack of balance regarding
the benefits of smoking. One has to search pretty hard to find
any concession anywhere in the report that smoking is not all bad, something
the tobacco industry liked to bring up when testifying before Congress.
Health benefits include the feeling of well-being, satisfaction
and happiness, and everything else. But beyond just all the happiness the
Surgeon General was trying to extinguish, he failed to even mention
that smokers appear protected against Parkinson’s disease. More than 50 studies over the last half
century quite unexpectedly showed that tobacco use is associated with
a lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease. Now up to more than five dozen studies.
Yeah, but smokers are probably dying off before they even have a chance
to get Parkinson’s. No, that did not seem to be it; they found
a protective effect at all ages. Maybe it’s because smokers
tend to be coffee drinkers? We know coffee consumption
alone appears protective. But no, the protective effect
of smoking remained, even after carefully controlling
for coffee intake. Maybe we inherit some propensity to both
not smoke and get Parkinson’s? If only we could like clone
someone to have the same DNA. We can.
They’re called identical twins. And still the relationship remained, suggesting a true biologic protective
effect of cigarette smoking. Not so fast — maybe finding unusually
low rates of Parkinson’s among smokers is an example of reverse causation.
Maybe smoking doesn’t protect against Parkinson’s; maybe Parkinson’s
protects against smoking. Maybe there’s something about
a Parkinson’s brain that makes it easier to quit. Or maybe
failure to develop a smoking habit in the first place is an early
manifestation of the disease. To put that to the test researchers studied
children exposed to their parents’ smoke. Now if they grew up to have
less Parkinson’s, then that would confirm the
protective link, and indeed they did. So smoking really does seem
protective against Parkinson’s disease. But who cares?
How does that help us? I mean, more than 20 million Americans
have died as a result of smoking since the first Surgeon General’s report. So even if we didn’t care about dying
from lung cancer and emphysema, even if we just cared about our brain
we still wouldn’t smoke because smoking is a significant risk
factor for having a stroke as well. So why do I even bring this up?
Unless there was a way we could get the benefits of smoking without
the risks through our diet, which we’ll cover next.