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NOTIONS Whole-hog health scare: A deadly double standard

The planet is all agog over swine flu.

We’re not supposed to call it swine flu. We’re supposed to call it H1N1. That way, the hogs and pigs won’t get upset and U.S. pork sales won’t decline any further. And besides, the disease isn’t transmitted through swine, um, “donations” to the human cause. We spread it quite effectively without them.

So munch on some pork tenderloin and consider this: As of this writing, H1N1 has been confirmed in 279 cases in 36 U.S. states. There’s been one death. Yet judging by the ensuing global jerk alert, one might expect the second coming of the great 1918 flu pandemic.

We’ve seen wall-to-wall media hype. School and business closings. Prevention and treatment scams. People donning face masks and avoiding handshakes. Travel advisories. International quarantines.

We’ve heard scary 9/11-like terms such as “alert levels,” and “imminent threat,” and “homeland security.” We’ve even watched Vice President Joe Biden suffer a recurrence of foot-in-mouth disease while discussing flu-that’s-not-in-hoof disease.

I empathize with those who’ve suffered from H1N1-especially those who’ve lost loved ones to this virus. I’m delighted that our global public health system kicked into action, sounded warnings and otherwise did its educational and medical job. I’m thrilled that the much-beleaguered media can still inform us quickly and effectively not only about the flu, but also about the latest salmonella or E. coli scares involving peanut butter, spinach or whatever.

But here’s what bugs me.

These health crises have been shortterm and well-contained in the United States. The spinach scare in 2006: 199 people infected, three deaths. Tomatoes in 2008: 145 infections, no deaths. Peanut butter in 2009: 714 infections, maybe nine deaths. H1N1 so far in 2009: Fewer than 300 cases. One death.

Kudos to good government, smart science and quick, effective health education.

But therein lies the rub.

When these things happen, we expect government to take the lead. We trust government science. And with the public’s health at risk, the story gets covered and we individually and institutionally heed the warnings. No one calls government officials “Nazis” for intervening. No one accuses government of pedaling “junk science” or “flawed research.” No one says, “Let individual groceries decide” whether to sell tainted food or “Let individual businesses decide” whether to stay open after someone’s been sick. No one says, “If I want to sell products laced with E. coli, that’s my business,” or “If I want to come to work with the flu, that’s my choice.” No legislator says, “Yeah, we know this is bad for you, but we need the tax revenue, so we’ll let it go.”

And yet, such statements, actions and attitudes-compounded by an unhealthy dose of complacency-are standard operating procedure when it comes to the No. 1 cause of preventable illness and death in America: tobacco products.

Forget, for a moment, the self-inflicted damage smokers do to themselves. Let’s consider only secondhand smoke.

Remember those health-scare numbers noted above-the ones in the hundreds for well-hyped outbreaks? Compare this:

The California Environmental Protection Agency estimates that secondhandsmoke exposure causes approximately 3,400 lung-cancer deaths and 22,700 to 69,600 heart-disease deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that exposure is responsible for 150,000-300,000 new cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in children under 18 months old, resulting in 7,500-15,000 hospitalizations annually.

And the U.S. Surgeon General reports that more than 126 million nonsmoking Americans continue to be exposed to secondhand smoke in homes, vehicles, workplaces and public places.

Same government. Same scientists. Far greater risk and damage. Yet those opposed to smokefree workplace laws, higher cigarette taxes and federal regulation of tobacco products fight tooth and nail to keep these known toxins legal and lethal.

They question government’s role in protecting our health.

They question the science and the researchers behind it.

They defend to the death our right to, well, inflict death.

But because secondhand smoke is a longer-term health threat-rather than something quick like the flu or food poisoning-too much of society, including the media, overlooks this human slaughter with nary a second glance.

It’s a deadly double standard.

If a disease suddenly appeared that annually killed 3,400 Americans from poisoned lungs and 69,700 Americans from poisoned hearts; a disease that annually sickened 300,000 American infants with serious respiratory ailments; a disease that put 126 million Americans at risk, then we’d certainly have widespread panic; we’d certainly expect government to take the lead; we’d certainly trust modern science; we certainly wouldn’t want individual businesses to decide our fate for us; and we certainly wouldn’t sustain the ailment for the sake of tax revenue.

And yet, when it comes to secondhand smoke, that’s the swine manure dumped in our public trough each and every day.


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at

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