Monday, May 7, 2012

The 2012 Arch Intern Med red meat-mortality study: The “protective” effect of smoking

In a previous post () I used WarpPLS () to analyze the model below, using data reported in a recent study looking at the relationship between red meat consumption and mortality. The model below shows the different paths through which smoking influences mortality, highlighted in red. The study was not about smoking, but data was collected on that variable; hence this post.

When one builds a model like the one above, and tests it with empirical data, the person does something similar to what a physicist would do. The model is a graphical representation of a complex equation, which embodies the beliefs of the modeler. WarpPLS builds the complex equation automatically for the user, who would otherwise have to write it down using mathematical symbols.

The results yielded by the complex equation, partly in the form of coefficients of association for direct relationships (the betas next to the arrows), have a meaning. Some may look odd, and require novel interpretations, much in the same way that odd results from an equation describing planetary motions may have led to the development of the theory of black holes.

Nothing is actually "proven" by the results. They are part of the long and painstaking process we call "research". To advance new knowledge, one needs a lot more than a single study. Darwin's theory of evolution is still being tested. Based on various tests and partial refutations, it has itself evolved a great deal since its original formulation.

One set of results that are generated based on the model above by WarpPLS, in addition to coefficients for direct relationships, are coefficients of association called "total effects". They aggregate all of the effects, via multiple paths, between each pair of variables. Below is a table of total effects, with the total effects of smoking on diabetes incidence and overall mortality highlighted in red.

As you can see, the total effects of smoking on diabetes incidence and overall mortality are negative, but small enough to be considered insignificant. This is interesting, because smoking is definitely not health-promoting. Among hunter-gatherers, who often smoke tobacco, it increases the incidence of various types of cancer (). And it may be at the source of many of the health problems suggested by analyses on the China Study II data ().

So what are these results telling us? They tell us that smoking has an intermediate protective effect, very likely associated with its anorexic effect. Smoking is an appetite suppressor. Its total effect on food intake is negative, and strong. As we can see from the table of total effects, just below the two numbers highlighted in red, the total effect of smoking on food intake is -0.356.

Still, it looks like smoking is nearly as bad as overeating to the point of becoming obese (), in terms of its overall effect on health. Otherwise we would see a positive total effect on overall mortality of comparable strength to the negative total effect on food intake.

Smoking may make one eat less, but it ends up hastening one’s demise through different paths.