Anti-tobacco activists have expressed concern that comparing the ill-effects of air pollution to that of smoking will result in trivialising the catastrophic effects of smoking.
They say that such comparisons also promote the theory that it is all right to smoke as the air that we breathe is equally harmful.
“It is absurd to compare the health consequences of air pollution with that of smoking. Needless to say, both are equally important public health issues and the comparisons are being made to probably simplify it for lay people,” said anti-tobacco activist and cancer surgeon Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi.
“Such comparisons are based on a formula proposed by a Berkeley Earth study that draws an equivalence between the hazards of air pollution and smoking. In the words of one of the co-author of the study ‘when you bring scientific terms to something so well known as a cigarette number, it helps to raise awareness and bring discussion. It hits people in the way they can understand.’ However, the author’s metaphor is being misinterpreted and it is belittling something as serious as tobacco control,” said Dr. Chaturvedi.
“The common ingredients of air pollution are mainly carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds and suspended particulate matter. Cigarette smoke, in addition to all the above, is made of nearly 7,000 toxic chemicals and at least 69 of them are highly carcinogenic,” he said, adding that the dose or concentration of the suspended particulate matter in the air per day and per lifetime is nearly 200 times lesser than that from cigarettes.
Echoing Dr. Chaturvedi’s argument, Dr. P.C. Gupta, head of the Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, said: “Air pollution is of two types — outdoor and indoor. When a smoker is present in the room, the indoor pollution levels are much higher than outdoor pollution at times. A smoker not only exposes self to the carcinogens and toxic particles but all the others near him.”
Activists are also worried that the misinterpreted comparison promotes a philosophy that one might as well smoke because it’s no worse than breathing polluted air.
“This may justify continuation as well as initiation of the smoking habit,” said Dr. Chaturvedi, adding that the argument weakens the resolve of the government, the civil society and public health activists in controlling the tobacco menace.