Latest Anti-Pot Quack Science ’Marijuana Makes Your Teeth Fall Out’ – Jack Herer MySpace Blog

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

 

Latest Anti-Pot Quack Science:
’Marijuana Makes Your Teeth Fall Out’

By Bruce
Mirken
, AlterNet. Posted February
9, 2008
.

Recent weeks
have seen a rash of new studies of marijuana hitting the
mass media, generating scary headlines like "Smoking Pot
Rots Your Gums," "Cannabis Bigger Cancer Risk Than
Cigarettes," and "Pot Withdrawal Similar to Quitting
Cigarettes. Most of this coverage can be boiled down to
a fairly simple equation:

Flawed science + uncritical reporting =
misinformation.


Mercifully, the U.S. mass media were so
distracted by Super Tuesday, Heath Ledger’s autopsy and
the latest Britney Spears trauma that reports of these
studies didn’t get as much play as they might have.
That’s good, because the research had significant gaps,
and the reporting ranged from slapdash to flat
wretched.


LUNG CANCER: A JOINT = 20
CIGARETTES?


The lung cancer study was the scariest.
Since cigarettes are a known lung cancer risk, it seems
plausible that marijuana might carry similar risks. In
fact, most of the scientific evidence tends in the
opposite direction — though one would never know it
from reading either the study or the Reuters wire story
that got the heaviest circulation.


Conducted in New Zealand, this was what
is called a "case-control" study, in which researchers
looked at a group of patients who had lung cancer and
compared them to a group without cancer — the controls
— matched for age and other demographics. All were
asked about various factors that might increase their
lung cancer risk, including smoking cigarettes or
marijuana. After running the data on 79 cancer cases and
324 controls through myriad equations and mathematical
analyses, the researchers proclaimed that one joint
packed a cancer risk roughly equal to 20 cigarettes —
an assertion that became Reuters’ lead.


What was downplayed in the study,
published in the European Respiratory Journal,
and missing entirely from most media reports was context
— context that strongly suggests that its alarming
conclusion is wrong.


For one thing, the new conflicts with
other, much larger studies. In a study published in
1997, Kaiser-Permanente researchers followed 65,000
patients for 10 years and saw no sign of marijuana use
increasing the risk of lung cancer or other
smoking-related cancers. And a UCLA study similar in
design to this one, published in 2006, found a trend
toward lower lung cancer rates among marijuana smokers.
Instead of 79 cancer cases, the UCLA team looked at
1,212. The result was so striking that they speculated
that it "may reflect a protective effect of
marijuana."


That’s right: Marijuana might protect
from cancer. Piles of published studies going back to
the mid-1970s document the cancer-fighting properties of
marijuana’s active components, THC and other chemicals
called cannabinoids. Anticancer activity has been shown
in many types of malignant cells, including lung cancer
cells. So even though marijuana smoke contains tars and
other potentially carcinogenic compounds, it is entirely
plausible that cannabinoids counter any harmful
effects.


But even without such context, a closer
look at the New Zealand data raises questions that
should have been asked by reporters. For example, most
marijuana smokers in the study actually didn’t show an
increased risk of cancer. The only group that did was
those whose marijuana use equaled at least 10.5
"joint-years" (one joint-year equals smoking a joint
every day for one year). That group constituted a
whopping 14 people. All those complicated mathematical
models leading to the "20 times the risk" assertion, and
contradicting reams of published research, rest on
exactly 14 people.


DOES MARIJUANA ROT YOUR GUMS?


The gum disease study was even more
tenuous, but again you would never know it from most of
the coverage. Researchers — also in New Zealand —
followed 903 participants from birth through age 32. At
ages 18, 21, 26, and 32, they were asked whether they
had used marijuana in the past year, and how often. The
heaviest marijuana users had a 60 percent increased risk
for gum disease after controlling for several factors
that might affect their risk, including cigarette use
and professional dental care.


The researchers were careful to say they
hadn’t proved cause-and-effect, but simply what
scientists called an "association." But that didn’t stop
one U.S. reporter from writing that marijuana "could …
destroy gum tissue," and an Australian headline writer
from declaring that marijuana "makes teeth fall
out."


Reading the actual study — something
one suspects most reporters never did — raises
questions the media never asked. Why is there no
indication that participants were questioned about use
of alcohol or other illicit drugs, both of which are
known risk factors for dental and gum problems? Why were
they not asked about brushing and flossing
habits?


Given the relatively small effect — the
statistical margin of error meant that the increased
risk could be as low as 16 percent — confounding by
alcohol/drug use or poor dental hygiene could easily
explain the whole difference. In other words, there is a
very good chance this study found nothing real at
all.


I raised this issue with an editor at
one news organization, whose story had been particularly
hysterical and lacking in context, asking why they
hadn’t noted these potential doubts. The rather snippy
reply: "As for the rest of your concerns, we are dealing
with a peer-reviewed journal study, and I don’t feel at
all comfortable going beyond what they are publishing.
That is not our role."


Memo to editors: Journal peer-reviewers
are human. They sometimes miss stuff. When did it stop
being a reporter’s job to ask questions?


MARIJUANA AS ADDICTIVE AS
TOBACCO?


If you haven’t lost your teeth or died
of lung cancer yet, another set of grim headlines warned
that marijuana is as addictive as tobacco — again, a
conclusion that went beyond the study’s findings and
which was almost certainly wrong.


In this U.S. study, researchers took 12
people who regularly smoked both marijuana and
cigarettes and had them stop using one, the other, and
both, in varying orders. Physiological tests and
responses to questionnaires were used to assess
withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and difficulty
sleeping. The withdrawal symptoms reported were roughly
comparable.


But the limitations of this research are
obvious. In fairness, most were acknowledged in the
study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol
Dependence.


For one, the study looked only at
regular users of both substances, so it tells nothing
about marijuana users who do not use tobacco — a
considerable number, by most accounts. Second, the
researchers did not publish the results for individual
participants. In a sample of 12, one or two extreme
responses can skew the averages enough to make them
meaningless.


The researchers also did not note any
changes in participants’ use of caffeine or alcohol,
which could easily have affected their findings.
Volunteers were asked not to change their use of these
substances, but we have no clue whether they followed
these instructions.


And though the overall withdrawal
symptom ratings were similar, ratings of anger and
craving were higher for tobacco than for marijuana. And
even in areas where the two substances were
statistically comparable, there was often a trend toward
the tobacco withdrawals being stronger. Had this been a
larger study, those trends might have reached
statistical significance.


Also, the 5-day abstinence period may
not have been enough to fully gauge withdrawal effects.
For longtime cigarette smokers, tobacco cravings can
continue for years.


Finally, a reality check: It is an
established fact that about 32 percent of those who ever
touch a cigarette become dependent on tobacco. For
marijuana, the figure is nine percent. In the real
world, it’s clear that marijuana is nowhere near as
addictive as tobacco — but again, you’d never know it
from the coverage of this study.


In fact, you wouldn’t learn much from
the coverage of any of these studies.


Bruce
Mirken is communications director for the Marijuana Policy
Project
.

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