Mike Pence and Rush Limbaugh on smoking, cancer, and the coronavirus

This is newsworthy because it was reported that Vice President Mike Pence was assigned to coordinate the government’s response to the coronavirus.

Paul Alper pointed me to this statement from Pence in 2001:

Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer. This is not to say that smoking is good for you. . . . news flash: smoking is not good for you.

This is not science denial . . . it’s incoherence! Smoking’s not good for you, and one out of every three smokers dies from a smoking related illness . . . but smoking doesn’t kill? That’s just weird. That said, I heard pretty much the same argument at an NIH panel once, so I guess Pence is not alone in his incoherence.

Earlier Alper had sent me this quote from recently-honored radio host Rush Limbaugh, from 2015:

Firsthand smoke takes 50 years to kill people, if it does. Not everybody that smokes gets cancer. Now, it’s true that everybody who smokes dies, but so does everyone who eats carrots. . . . If tobacco is so deadly, if it is so bad, why does our government permit it to be sold? . . . I’ve never seen Cause of death: Tobacco products. Not everybody who smokes gets cancer. . . .

This all seemed bad too, but it’s hard to know what to say about it because, while Limbaugh has been an influential public figure, he’s an entertainer, and I’d assume that if you press him on his reasoning (for example, just because “not everybody who smokes gets cancer,” is that a good reason to dismiss the dangers of smoking?), that he’d respond that he’s just exaggerating for comic effect. Of course everyone knows that smoking causes cancer and kills people. OK, not Mike Pence, but everyone else.

More recently, Limbaugh said this:

Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus. . . . Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks. . . . I’m telling you, the Chicoms are trying to weaponize this thing, . . . Well, every nation is working on things like this, and the Chicoms obviously in their lab are doing something here with the coronavirus — and it got out.

As with Pence on smoking, Limbaugh on the coronavirus is incoherent: he can’t seem to decide whether it’s no big deal (“the common cold”) or some sort of military bioweapon.

Limbaugh’s statement about smoking from 2015 is shtick, humor. It may or may not be irresponsible, but I can only assume he was joking. But his more recent statement on coronavirus doesn’t sound like a joke at all.

To return to Pence: it doesn’t seem good for him to be in charge of a public health effort, if he’s out there in public saying, “smoking doesn’t kill.”

A few days ago we had some discussion of the Heartland Institute, which has been funded by cigarette companies and has taken strong positions in favor of that industry. Here’s what they say:

Heartland’s long-standing position on tobacco is that smoking is a risk factor for many diseases; we have never denied that smoking kills.

It turns out that Vice President Pence is a long-time friend and admirer of The Heartland Institute. Perhaps he could give them a call and ask them to explain to him that smoking does kill. And I hope that before going forward on this coronavirus thing, he can decide on the party line: Is it equivalent to the common cold or is it a Chinese-engineered bioweapon?

I thought PNAS was bad news, but this stuff really matters, right?