Statistics Are His Ammunition in the Battle Against Cigarettes


He doesn't sport anti-smoking badges or constantly spout smoke-and-croak warnings like his more militant comrades. Nonetheless, Gus Miller is relentless in his campaign to snuff out what he considers America's No. 1 drug--cigarettes.

His is a solitary, relatively quiet war. His ammunition is statistics.

"I'm a scientist. I'm also a pragmatist. And to me, the best way to do it is to just chip away," Miller said.

The 65-year-old statistician has been poking into America's penchant to puff since 1972, when he launched Studies on Smoking, a nonprofit research group, from his Edinboro home in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Last summer, Miller quit his job as a math and computer science professor at Edinboro University to devote all his time to seek out the perils of tobacco.

"Why is this so important to me? Because cigarettes are responsible for 400,000 premature deaths a year," he said. "I've seen so many of my family or my friends die needlessly because they smoked."

He manages, he said, to push personal feelings aside.

"Yeah, it's an emotional issue," said Miller, an ardent nonsmoker who despises cigarette smoke. "But I teach stop-smoking clinics, so you have to use psychology. You can't get emotional about it."

More than 50 million Americans smoke cigarettes, according to a 1989 report by then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. An additional 40 million would be smoking if not for changes in an increasingly health-conscious environment, the report contends.

Miller's efforts to publicize his message have been thwarted at times, he said, because of who he is--or rather who he isn't.

"If you're not a member of 'the club' and you're not an M.D. and you want to get into medical journals, you've got problems," said Miller, who has a doctorate in educational psychology.

"The club," he explains, "is the people who get all the grant money and publish. That's the club."

Donald Shopland, public health adviser for the National Cancer Institute's smoking, tobacco and cancer program, acknowledges most published data on smoking is financed through federal grants.

Except for occasional, small donations from industry, Miller finances his own research. He figures he's spent $60,000 to $70,000 over the years.

"They are a fairly rare bunch who are doing their own individual research with their own individual funds," Shopland said.

Despite such obstacles, Miller has had several dozen articles published in professional periodicals. He signs his work as G.H. Miller.

Miller also has presented his findings at scientific conferences around the world, including a symposium on cancer prevention in France last April. There, he reported an eight- to nine-times greater risk of cancer among nonsmoking women who live with smokers than those in smoke-free homes. He based his conclusion on a study of 906 nonsmoking women from surrounding Erie County who died from 1975 to 1980.

In late October and early November, Miller attended the fifth General Chautauqua Conference on U.S.-Soviet Relations at the University of Pittsburgh. He spent the week urging Soviet medical officials to adopt more stringent no-smoking measures.

Dr. Yuri Lopukhin, director of the Research Institute for Physiochemical Medicine in Moscow and an expert on addiction, was impressed with Miller's work and would like him to visit the Soviet Union to share his views.

Although anti-tobacco education has been offered in Soviet schools the last five to 10 years and stop-smoking programs are available for adults, the efforts have not made much of a dent in the country's large smoking population, Lopukhin said.

"I think he (Miller) is, yes, helpful. He is very active," Lopukhin said. "But he maybe does not succeed so much in this very heavy problem in your country and our country, too."

The Tobacco Institute, a trade association representing U.S. cigarette manufacturers, has criticized Miller for being non-scientific in his collection and analysis of data.

"And of course you get that from your fellow scientists who say, 'No, your data is invalid' because it varies from what they have found," Miller said. "You see, my problem is I'm always on the forefront."

Lawrence Garfinkel, vice president of epidemiology and statistics for the American Cancer Society, is among those researchers skeptical of Miller's work on secondhand smoke.

"Some people don't agree with the methods he uses," Garfinkel said. "He may have done some of the early work (on passive smoking). I can tell you when they cite the studies that have been done, they don't include his very often."

The surgeon general's 1989 report concludes that secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in healthy nonsmokers. In addition, children of parents who smoke have an increased frequency of respiratory infections.

More than one in every six deaths in the United States is due to cigarette smoking, according to the surgeon general. Smoking is responsible for an estimated 30% of all cancer deaths--including 87% of lung cancer deaths, 21% of deaths from heart disease and 18% of stroke deaths.

"Cigarettes are much more deadly, much, much more deadly" than narcotics, Miller said. "They're much more addictive.

"That's why we try to push for getting laws strengthened and churn out research articles showing how bad active smoking is and how bad passive smoking is."

Like many Americans, Miller was unaware of all the risks when he decided in 1972 to take on smoking. He was prompted into action after talking to a nurse about the varying life spans of men and women.

"I mentioned to her that to me it was pretty obvious smoking has something to do with the male-female longevity difference, and the reason I knew that is my father was a heavy smoker. He got emphysema. He tried to quit several times and he got wiped out," he said.

"She said, 'Well, where's your data?' So I figured, well, let me go chase around and look for data."

Miller began sorting through Erie County death notices in 1972 in his spare time, noting those people who were at least 30 when they died. By the following year, he was interviewing survivors to see whether the dead had smoked.

He found after analyzing the life styles of about 500 people that men and women lived to about the same age if they did not smoke. There was a difference of 16 years, however, between smoking and nonsmoking women and a 12-year gap between smoking and nonsmoking men. The Journal of Breathing published his findings in 1975.

"I knew there was more there," he said. "I started going full blast."

In 1976, after compiling data on 3,500 more subjects with the help of volunteers, Miller issued a second report showing similar longevity results.

Miller ventured into the controversial area of secondhand smoke in the late 1970s and since has devoted most of his time to it.

In a particularly controversial study published in 1984, he reported a significantly higher risk of cancer among unemployed women whose husbands smoked compared to those whose husbands did not. He based his conclusions on 842 Erie County residents who died in 1975 and 1976.

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