Would you like formaldehyde with that?

Is protein as bad for you as smoking? The Guardian certainly thinks it’s an idea that’s worth a run around the paddock.

Naturally of course, the jury is still out on that one, but what’s most interesting is the reaction from health advocates. For instance, this statement from Gunter Kuhnle, a food nutrition scientist at Reading University, complaining about the headline itself, saying

“…it was wrong “and potentially even dangerous” to compare the effects of smoking with the effect of meat and cheese as the study does.

“Sending out [press] statements such as this can damage the effectiveness of important public health messages. They can help to prevent sound health advice from getting through to the general public. The smoker thinks: ‘why bother quitting smoking if my cheese and ham sandwich is just as bad for me?'”

No, actually, it’s not wrong. It is, in fact, completely right. Contrary to popular belief, the dangers of smoking are not easily mapped on a linear, dose response chart. Certainly, the  Australian public health campaign’s ‘every cigarette is doing you damage’ message is probably correct, but so is almost every other bloody thing you’re up to. However, the ‘Every moment your cells become older is doing you damage’ never made it past the focus groups.

The trick lies in figuring out the intersection of smoking and your own body. Risk profiling demonstrates that in fact smoking isn’t immediately deadly, as evidenced by the fact that not all smokers develop smoking related illnesses, much less die of them. So, the point at which the risk of developing cancer emerges above the noise and competing risks of being alive and having aging cells appears sooner with smoking than with a ham and cheese sandwich. But importantly, there is a point where the risks associated with both are still in the noise.

So yes, strictly speaking, there is a safe level of ham and cheese consumption, but equally there’s also no proven unsafe level of smoking, despite the fact that smoking’s risk profile is much scarier than a couple of slices of ham. Unless, of course, you happen to be the pig.

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