Cigs and Figs

A mathematician's guide to the news.
June 15 2001 3:00 AM

Cigs and Figs

How do you count dead smokers?

Recent TV ad: Three teen-agers bungee out of an airplane while chugging their favorite soda. Two of the boys positively beam with satisfaction. The other boy's head explodes. Tobacco, the ad concludes, is the only product that kills one in three people who use it.

Advertisement

It's the best of the tobacco-settlement-funded spots to occupy the airwaves because it recognizes an essential fact about turning a number into a brand name: The smaller, the more graspable the number, the more powerful the brand. You know three smokers. You don't know 157,400 people, the number the American Cancer Society predicts will die of lung cancer this year.

But what does "one in three" mean? It could mean:

  • Of people who were smokers, one-third died of illnesses directly traceable to their smoking.
  • Of people who were smokers, one-third would have died of illnesses directly traceable to their smoking had they not died first of something else.
  • Of people who were smokers, one-third died of illnesses related to smoking that they would not have died from had they not smoked.
  • If you start smoking today, you have a 1-in-3 chance of dying from an illness directly traceable to your smoking.
  • If you start smoking today, and you don't die of something else before you're 60, you have a 1-in-3 chance of dying from an illness directly traceable to your smoking.
  • If you start smoking today, you have a 1-in-3 chance of dying from an illness related to smoking that you would not have died from had you not smoked.

One could easily go on; just to start, the word "people" could be replaced by "Americans," "teen-agers," "men," or the name of any other group on whom the statistic might be based.

The assertions above all speak to different questions—questions that may, in fact, have drastically different answers.Gerber used to advertise that four out of five pediatricians recommended Gerber baby food. "Four out of five," it turns out, was the answer to the question:

"Of doctors who recommend a specific brand of baby food, how many recommended Gerber?"

The answer to the question:

"Of doctors who recommend that babies eat baby food, how many specifically recommend eating Gerber?" was just 16 percent, as the Federal Trade Commission pointed out in a 1997 complaint. Gerber pulled the ads.

So, what question has the answer "one in three?" To find out, we trace the statistic back to its source, the Nov. 9, 1996, issue of a Centers for Disease Control publication agreeably titled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (This week's issue features "Responding to Fecal Accidents in Disinfected Swimming Venues.")