Thursday, February 26 2004

Smoking gun on obesity?

While reading the entertaining (if occasionally credulous) book Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, I was struck by the repeated mention of nicotine’s role as an appetite suppressant. As a non-smoker, I was vaguely aware of this trait, and the problem many people experience with weight gain when they attempt to quit, but I hadn’t thought to tie it to the current hysterical claims of an obesity “epidemic”.

Some of the available data argues against this connection, but other sources are rather coy about weight gain by former smokers. It’s pretty hard to accept the NIDDK’s simplistic approach to the subject after they admit that 10% of former smokers gain 30 pounds or more.

Do I think the anti-smoking movement has a causal relationship with the obesity “epidemic” (which, by the way, is also plagued by sins of omission when it comes to data quality)? No, not really. It’s simply one of the many lifestyle changes that took place during the same period, all of which undermine the simplistic cause-and-effect scenarios put forth by greedy lawyers, nitwit busybodies, and activists with thinly-veiled agendas.

But it does make me wonder, especially since so much of the data on both subjects is based on self-reports over long periods, rather than actual measurement. The nicest thing I can say about them is that the claims aren’t as far-fetched as the ones made for second-hand smoke, red meat, carbs, fat, grilling, butter, salt, etc.