COMMENTS: Smoking Scan

ABC followed the lead of The New York Times assigning Sharyn Alfonsi (embargoed link) to start its newscast with the expose that lung cancer research by the Weill Cornell Medical Center published in the New England Journal of Medicine had been financed by the tobacco industry. The Vector Group, owner of Liggett cigarettes, had channeled $3.6m through a charity called the Foundation for Lung Cancer Early Treatment and Prevention to pay for research by Dr Claudia Henschke. Henschke claimed that her study proved that CT scans prevent cancer deaths in smokers by detecting lesions in the lungs when they are still small and therefore treatable. Alfonsi reported that Henschke was a co-owner of patents on the CT technology and was receiving royalties from the increased use of scans as a result of her research.

It turns out that it is not only the tobacco industry that has a vested interest in making spiral CT scans attractive and reassuring to smokers. On NBC's In Depth Robert Bazell pointed out that his corporate bosses, General Electric, had also subsidized Henschke's research. General Electric manufactures scanning machines. NBC News also publicized Henschke's thesis in November 2006 when Mike Taibbi, its correspondent and longtime smoker, underwent one of the CT scans to reassure himself that his lungs were clean when he quit.

To Taibbi's credit, he followed up next day with rival lung cancer experts who claimed that there was no evidence that discovering lesions early led to longer lives, despite the extra biopsies, surgery and radiology that early detection can incur. On CBS, in-house physician Jon LaPook reported on the same counterargument last March, when the NEJoM study was contradicted in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ABC's in-house physician Timothy Johnson followed up on Alfonsi's report by calling Henschke's thesis "not proven…what we really need is the study that is now under way--half the group getting regular screening; a group not getting regular screening--to see if there is any ultimate difference in death rates between those two groups." Dr Tim did not say who is funding that research.


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