Tom Chivers

Lies, damn lies and health statistics – smoking is more deadly than serving in Afghanistan

Basically nothing is as bad for you as smoking. Short of fairly obvious things like blunt-force trauma or falling out of buildings, anyway. That is a fact worth keeping in mind when you read newspaper headlines about health.

On the front page of the Telegraph’s print edition on Friday ran the headline: ‘Lazy lifestyle can be as deadly as smoking’. The Mail runs the same story, saying: ‘A lack of exercise is as dangerous as smoking.’

Now, remember: Nothing that you do in your daily life, even if you are a lumberjack or an oil-rig diver or whatever, is as deadly as smoking. I pretty much promise you that. Serving with the British Army in Afghanistan is, on one admittedly superficial reading of the statistics, not as dangerous as smoking. (As far as I can work out, rather more than 10,000 UK men and women have served in Afghanistan; fewer than 500 have died; odds of death less than 1 in 20. Smoking-related diseases kill somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of lifelong smokers.)

So why do we see so many headlines saying ‘X is as deadly as smoking’? In recent years I’ve seen ‘Is a handshake as deadly as smoking?‘ (no, it’s not); ‘sitting can be more dangerous than smoking‘ (no, it can’t); and ‘high-protein diets are as dangerous as smoking‘ (no, they’re not).

Smoking was, as I’ve written before, a bit of a one-off, from an epidemiological point of view: there’s almost nothing else which lots of us do all the time, and lots of us don’t do at all, and which is straightforwardly poisonous. The effects of every other lifestyle factor are much harder to tease out. But it is possible, to an extent. Public Health England (PHE), the excellent and wise body behind the ‘lack of exercise’ study, has done that for inactivity, and they think that about 85,000 deaths a year, around one-sixth of the total, are related to sedentary lifestyles.

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