‘Bacon As Dangerous as Smoking.’ Except It Isn’t.

Many newspapers have understandably jumped on an announcement from the World Health Organisation that bacon causes cancer. They’ve gone with some pretty alarmist headlines, such as this from The Guardian:

‘Processed meat ranks alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO’

Technically they are not wrong, but they are misleading. The WHO has announced there is as much evidence processed meat causes cancer as there is smoking does. As a result, it is now classed as an IARC1 carcinogen e.g. one with lots of evidence. The WHO haven’t quantified how much cancer processed meat causes. Nor have they said how likely you are to die from such cancers.

As an analogy, think about driving a car. There is good evidence not wearing a seatbelt will mean an increased chance of harm. There is good evidence driving a car after a bottle of Buckfast will mean an increased chance of harm. However driving after Buckfast is much more dangerous than driving without a seatbelt. Having equal evidence that something is harmful does not make them equally harmful.

If you are being generous, you could read the headline and say: “well, the Guardian is just saying bacon and smoking are in the same category. They haven’t technically said ‘bacon is as bad as smoking.'” I’d probably reply with: “If you’re being pedantic and not reading the headline as most people would, sure you could say that.”

This apologetic falls down when you look at the subheading:

‘UN health body says bacon, sausages and ham among most carcinogenic substances along with cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic’

This is absolutely 100% untrue. “Most carcinogenic” means ‘having the most potential to cause cancer.’ The UN has said there’s evidence a 50g portion of processed meat a day increases your chance of colorectal cancer by 18%. This study found smoking made you thirteen times more likely to get lung cancer, or a 1300% increased chance. Not to mention the other cancers smoking can cause such as bladder cancer. I’ll hope you’ll agree the two do not have the same potential to cause cancer.

I won’t attempt to figure out how many slices of salami you’d need to eat to increase your risk of cancer to that of smoking, as I’d almost certainly be committing a statistical sin of the worst kind. If I had to guess, I’d say at least a small pig each year. What I will say is the Guardian is horrible misleading in the introduction of this piece.

Sure, they clarify further down and make exactly the points I’ve made, but the damage has been done. Most people will never get down to reading the body of the text. They will stop at the headline and go away thinking that hot dogs are as bad for you as a twenty-a-day habit. This is simply not the case.

If you thinking I’m picking on an isolated case in the Guardian, I’m not. They were just the first paper I saw when I searched for the story. I could have picked nearly any paper in the UK and found a similar headline.

Many people are likely to cut down processed and red meat as a result of this media buzz. This will probably make their lives healthier and cheaper in the long run, which is clearly a good thing. It’s just a shame it took misleading scare stories for the health benefits of eating less meat to come to national attention.

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