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“Marijuana Does Not Raise Lung Cancer Risk,” proclaimed the headlines on May 23, over stories about Donald Tashkin’s talk at the American Thoracic Society conference in San Diego. Dr. Tashkin led a team of UCLA investigators who conducted a large, population-based, case-controlled study looking for links between marijuana use and the risk of lung cancer in middle-aged adults living in Los Angeles County. They concluded, “We did not observe a positive association of marijuana use, even heavy long-term use, with lung cancer, controlling for tobacco smoking and other potential confounders” (age, sex, race, educational level).
Tashkin originally announced his findings at last summer’s meeting of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, as reported in this column and O’Shaughnessy’s. Only now has the story hit the mainstream media. It is being reported accurately but with Tashkin’s conservative spin (downplaying the apparent protective effect exerted by THC and/or other components of the cannabis plant). The following from WebMD typifies the tone of the coverage:
“The findings surprised the study’s researchers, who expected to see an increase in cancer among people who smoked marijuana regularly in their youth. ‘We know that there are as many or more carcinogens and co-carcinogens in marijuana smoke as in cigarettes,’ researcher Donald Tashkin, MD, of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine tells WebMD. ‘But we did not find any evidence for an increase in cancer risk for even heavy marijuana smoking.’ Cellular studies and even some studies in animal models suggest that THC has anti-tumor properties, either by encouraging the death of genetically damaged cells that can become cancerous or by restricting the development of the blood supply that feeds tumors, Tashkin tells WebMD…
“While there was a suggestion in the newly reported study that smoking marijuana is weakly protective against lung cancer, Tashkin says the very weak association was probably due to chance. Cancer risk among cigarette smokers was not influenced by whether or not they also smoked marijuana. ‘We saw no interaction between marijuana and tobacco, and we certainly would not recommend that people smoke marijuana to protect themselves against cancer,’ he says.”
Generally omitted from the coverage is the fact that Tashkin has devoted much of his career to the search for cannabis-induced lung damage, and that his findings have been the basis for all the Drug Czar’s warnings over the years about marijuana as a carcinogen. Although Tashkin could isolate the cancer-causing components of cannabis smoke, and made frightening photomicrographs of damaged bronchial tissue, he never got the holy grail, the great white whale, a causal link to the Big C.
Philip Denney, MD, read the account of Tashkin’s talk to the respiratory specialists in the Orange County Register and called to ask: “How does it make you feel when you broke the Tashkin story and the mainstream media picks it up nine months later and nobody credits you with the scoop?”
Well, not quite nobody -there’s you, dear friend. And scoops were never my goal, for some reason. Of course a political journalist wants to reach the masses and influence the elites; but on another level, you’re only writing for a few people whose opinions you care about. The medical marijuana movement in all its varied aspects is a great story and I feel lucky to be covering it, even if CounterPunch, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and O’Shaughnessy’s are “below the radar.” The characters involved -the club owners, the doctors, the researchers, the activists, the growers, the patients (a term used rightly by the doctors and misused widely by people who really mean “customers”)- could be the basis for a comic novel if I was any kind of writer… Chapter 37, in which a team of doctors and scientists from UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine determine that components of cannabis exert a protective effect on the lungs and then characterize their study as “a failure!”
Tylenol Kills (Why Do They Hate You?)
“Once in Chicago while performing with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West,” wrote Roxane Dunbar, “Sitting Bull spoke through his translator to the huge crowd of ragged white men, women, and barefoot children: ‘I know why your government hates me. I am their enemy. But why do they hate you?'” Robert Altman’s great movie “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” doesn’t quote the line but depicts the context, the dawn of the age of corporate hucksterism. Paul Newman plays Buffalo Bill, who runs and is the star attraction of a traveling show. One of the “acts” on display is laconic, brilliant Sitting Bull.
The Sioux leader’s blunt question comes to mind with each example of the U.S. government’s willingness to expose us, the people, to corporate products and practices that are literally killing us. To protect the beef producers the feds won’t allow thorough testing for Mad Cow disease. To protect the poultry producers they tolerate high levels of salmonella in chicken, and even 500 ppb of arsenic! To protect the drug companies they outlaw the safest and most versatile pharmacological agent known to mankind and approve and even promote synthetic compounds with harmful-unto-death side effects. Vioxx, Celebrex, Rezulin, Fosamax, Seroquel, FenPhen, Prempro/Premarin
Get ready for a wave of stories revealing that Tylenol causes severe liver damage. Years ago the medical students at UC San Francisco called their Pathology rotation at General Hospital “Toadstools and Tylenol,” because the only cases of poisoning they ever had to deal with involved mushrooms or acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Johnson & Johnson’s best-selling painkiller. (McNeil, the company that markets Tylenol, is a branch of J&J.) Now the danger is being exposed in lawsuits, and the company is putting out a blame-the-victim line, i.e., it’s your fault for not using as directed, or drinking alcohol, or inadvertently taking in combination with other drugs that contain acetaminophen. They are also emphasizing how rare the cases of death by Tylenol are, given how many millions of Americans are popping the pills daily.
“Rare cases” of a drug taken by millions equate to thousands of individual catastrophes. The pharmaceutical manufacturers claim that the benefits their compounds confer on the many far outweigh the damage they cause a few. The “sanctity of the individual” -which we used to hear a lot about when the enemy was Communism- couldn’t stand up to cost-benefit analysis. The corporate decision-makers relate to us as customers, not as people. Their ad campaigns are folksy and friendly, as if they’re “good neighbors” concerned about our health -but they’re really stock owners intent on maximizing their profits. They’re willing to endanger our health to sell their products. That’s not the way you treat people you respect and love. It’s more akin to contempt and hate. And therein may lie the answer to Sitting Bull’s question.