One cigarette a day can cost a lot

According to the newspaper headlines of late, teenagers should be kept away from cigarette exposure because of this worrying statistic.

A survey of over 216,000 adults found that over 60% of them had been offered and tried a cigarette at some point, and of these, nearly 70% went on to become regular smokers. The conclusion drawn was that there are strong links between trying a cigarette ones to be sociable and going on to develop it as a habit.

This of course ended up in the newspapers with headlines such as “One cigarette is enough to get you hooked”. The Mail Online, Britain’s go-to newspaper for your important health news (and I’m being ironic here) went a step further, saying one puff from a cigarette was enough to get you hooked for life. Never mind if you had one draw of a cigarette, felt the nicotine reach your lungs, then coughed in revulsion at the bitter aftertaste and swore that you would never again try a cigarette again. The Mail Online bets you would return to the lure of the dark side, seduced by its nicotine offers.

I digress.

While we all know that any event, repeated many times becomes a habit, the statistics in this case are a little dubious.

The study was conducted by Queen Mary University (nothing dubious in itself) but among the various concerns were what you might call the high conversion rate. Nearly 70% of those who tried a cigarette once went on to smoke regularly as a habit.

I’m not sure why the 70% is worrying. In fact, I wonder why it is not 100%! Surely, if you asked a habitual smoker, “Have you smoked a cigarette before?”, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”!

Unless you have caught someone in the act of sneakily smoking his virgin cigarette. But he wouldn’t yet be a habitual smoker.

Let’s establish the facts of the matter again.

216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

Of the 130,000 who had tried a cigarette before, 81,000 (70%) went on to become regular smokers.

49,000 (30%) of those who tried a cigarette before either did not go on to smoke at all or did not smoke regularly.

Another way of looking at the data would be as follows:

216,000 adults surveyed.

135,000 adults do not smoke regularly or at all. Some did try once in the past.

81,000 adults smoke regularly and these people have obviously tried a cigarette before.

Suddenly the data doesn’t look sexy anymore.

The data was an umbrella studywhich means data was pooled rather than created from scratch through surveys. As previously examined, the final outcome is also dependent on the integrity of the original source.

Bias can also creep in because the data has not been directly obtained and inferences have been drawn.

For example, the influence of e-cigarettes and vaping on the results have not been scrutinised, because some of the data may have existed before then.

Before we leave it at this, here is another example of data bias:
216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

We can conclude that 100% of the 86,000 who have never smoked a cigarette in the past have never smoked a cigarette.

You can see the absurdity more when it’s spelt out more in words than in numbers.

If research is costly and expensive, in terms of money and time, then why is it wasted on these?

One reason is that it keeps academics and researchers in their jobs, if they produce findings that are financially low-cost but can stave off the question of what they actually do, and their purpose.

This kind of research is the academic version of the newspaper filler article, one that columnists generate based on the littlest of information, in order to fill the papers with “news”, that actually mask the fact that they are there to sell advertising space. And in this, columnists and researchers are at times colluding for the same purpose. Vultures who tear at the carcass of a small rodent and then serve up the bits as a trussed up main meal.

Unethical? Who cares, it seems. Just mask the flawed process and don’t make it too obvious.

The bigger issues that come with preventing hearing loss

Is there cause for optimism when it comes to preventing hearing loss? Certainly the latest research into this suggests that if positive effects experienced by mice could be transferred to humans and maintained for the long term, then hereditary hearing loss could be a thing of the past.

It has always been assumed that hearing loss is always down to old age. The commonly held view is that as people grow older, their muscles and body functions deteriorate with time to the point that muscle function is impaired and eventually lost. But hearing loss is not necessarily down to age, although there are cases where constant exposure to loud noise, over time, causes reduced sensitivity to aural stimuli. Over half of hearing loss cases are actually due to inheriting faulty genetic mutations from parents.

How do we hear? The hair cells of the inner ear called the cochlea respond to vibrations and these signals are sent to the brain to interpret. The brain processes these signals in terms of frequency, duration and timbre in order to translate them into signals we know.

For example, if we hear a high frequency sound of short duration that is shrill, our brain interprets these characteristics and then runs through a database of audio sounds, an audio library in the brain, and may come up with the suggestion that it has come from a whistle and may signify a call for attention.

What happens when you have a genetic hearing loss gene? The hairs on the inner ear do not grow back and consequently sound vibration from external stimuli do not get passed on to the brain.

With progressive hearing loss too, the characteristics of sound also get distorted. We may hear sounds differently to how they are produced, thereby misinterpreting their meaning. Sounds of higher and lower frequency may be less audible too.

How does that cause a problem? Imagine an alarm. It is set on a high frequency so that it attracts attention. If your ability to hear high frequencies is gradually dulled then you may not be able to detect the sound of an alarm going off.

As hearing gradually deteriorates, the timbre of a sound changes. Sharper sounds become duller, and in the case of the alarm, you may hear it, but it may sound more muted and the brain may not be able to recognise that it is an alarm being heard.

Another problem with hearing loss is the loss of perception of volume. You may be crossing the road and a car might sound its horn if you suddenly encroach into its path. But if you cannot hear that the volume is loud, you may perceive it to be from a car far away and may not realise you are in danger.

The loss of the hairs in the inner ear is a cause of deafness in humans, particularly those for whom hearing loss is genetic. Humans suffering from hereditary hearing loss lose the hairs of the inner ear, which result in the difficulties mentioned above. But there is hope. In a research experiment, scientists successfully delayed the loss of the hairs in the inner ear for mice using a technique that edited away the genetic mutation that causes the loss of the hairs in the cochlea.

Mice were bred with the faulty gene that caused hearing loss. But using a technology known as Crispr, the faulty gene was replaced with a healthy normal one. After about eight weeks, the hairs in the inner ears of mice with genetic predisposition to hearing loss flourished, compared to similar mice which had not been treated. The genetic editing technique had removed the faulty gene which caused hearing loss. The treated mice were assessed for responsiveness to stimuli and showed positive gains.

We could be optimistic about the results but it is important to stress the need to be cautious.

Firstly, the research was conducted on mice and not humans. It is important to state that certain experiments that have been successful in animals have not necessarily had similar success when tried on humans.

Secondly, while the benefits in mice were seen in eight weeks, it may take longer in humans, if at all successful.

Thirdly, we should remember that the experiment worked for the mice which had the genetic mutation that would eventually cause deafness. In other words, they had their hearing at birth but were susceptible to losing it. The technique prevented degeneration in hearing in mice but would not help mice that were deaf at birth from gaining hearing they never had.

Every research carries ethical issues and this one was no different. Firstly, one ethical issue is the recurring one of whether animals should ever be used for research. Should mice be bred for the purposes of research? Are all the mice used? Are they accounted for? Is there someone from Health and Safety going around with a clipboard accounting for the mice? And what happens to the mice when the research has ceased? Are they put down, or released into the ecosystem? “Don’t be silly,” I hear you say, “it’s only mice.” That’s the problem. The devaluation of life, despite the fact that it belongs to another, is what eventually leads to a disregard for other life and human life in general. Would research scientists, in the quest for answers, eventually take to conducting research on beggars, those who sleep rough, or criminals? Would they experiment on orphans or unwanted babies?

The second, when it comes to genetics, is whether genetic experimentation furthers good or promotes misuse. The answer, I suppose, is that the knowledge empowers, but one cannot govern its control. The knowledge that genetic mutation can be edited is good news, perhaps, because it means we can genetically alter, perhaps, disabilities or life-threatening diseases from the onset by removing them. But this, on the other hand, may promote the rise of designer babies, where mothers genetically select features such as blue eyes for their unborn child to enhance their features from birth, and this would promote misuse in the medical community.

Would the use of what is probably best termed genetic surgery be more prominent in the future? One can only suppose so. Once procedures have become more widespread it is certain to conclude that more of such surgeons will become available, to cater for the rich and famous. It may be possible to delay the aging process by genetic surgery, perhaps by removing the gene that causes skin to age, instead of using botox and other external surgical procedures.

Would such genetic surgery ever be available on the NHS? For example, if the cancer gene were identified and could be genetically snipped off, would patients request this instead of medical tablets and other external surgical processes? One way of looking at it is that the NHS is so cash-strapped that under QALY rules, where the cost of a procedure is weighed against the number of quality life years it adds, the cost of genetic surgery would only be limited to more serious illnesses, and certainly not for those down the rung. But perhaps for younger individuals suffering from serious illnesses, such as depression, the cost of a surgical procedure may far outweigh a lifetime’s cost of medication of anti-depressant, anti-psychotics or antibiotics. If you could pinpoint a gene that causes a specific pain response, you might alter it to the point you may not need aspirin, too much of which causes bleeds. And if you could genetically locate what causes dementia in another person, would you not be considered unethical if you let the gene remain, thereby denying others the chance to live a quality life in their latter years?

Genetic editing may be a new technique for the moment but if there is sufficient investment into infrastructure and the corpus of genetic surgery information widens, don’t be surprised if we start seeing more of that in the next century. The cost of genetic editing may outweigh the cost of lifelong medication and side effects, and may prove to be not just more sustainable for the environment but more agreeable to the limited NHS budget.

Most of us won’t be around by then, of course. That is unless we’ve managed to remove the sickness and death genes.

Ethically spending a million pounds on useful research

Does offering financial incentives encourage mothers of newborns to breastfeed? While this may seem incredulous, a study actually was implemented in parts of England to see if this would be the case.

More than 10,000 mothers across regions such as South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire took part in the trial, where mothers were given a hundred and twenty pounds if they breastfed their babies, and a further eighty pounds if they continued up to the point the babies were six months old. That is to say mothers received two hundred pounds if their babies were breastfed up to the age of six months.

But why was this implemented in the first place? One of the reasons the study was done was to see if financial incentives would help raise the rate of breastfeeding in the UK. In some parts of the UK, only one in eight babies are breastfed past eight weeks. The early suspension of breastfeeding causes later problems in life for babies, and this was a study to see if it would be possible to save a reported seventeen million pounds in annual hospital admissions or GP visits.

How were these women chosen? They were picked from areas which were reportedly low-income ones. There was a suggestion that in low-income areas, mothers feel obliged to return to work quickly and breastfeeding is inconvenient and a reason why mothers stop it.

The financial incentive did result in a rise of six percentage points, from 32% to 38%. This meant that over six hundred more mothers in the ten thousand breastfed their babies for up to six months instead of the hypothetical eight week line.

Should we get excited about these results? Caution is to be exercised.

As a few leading academics noted, there was no way to monitor a reported increase. The mother’s word was taken at face value but there was no way to monitor that a prolonged breastfeeding period actually took place. It would not be inaccurate to say that of these six hundred mothers, some merely reported they had breastfed for longer but without actually doing it. If you live in an income-deprived area, and were offered two hundred pounds of shopping at a time when you needed it, without having to do much apart from saying “Yes, I breastfed”, wouldn’t you take the easy money?

It was mentioned that if the results did have a high percentage of trustworthiness to them, in other words, if mothers breastfed as they said they had done, it would help normalise breastfeeding in regions where it might cause embarrassment to the mother. Why might breastfeeding cause embarrassment? For example, in some social situations it might be slightly awkward to reveal normally covered parts of the body in public.

How much did the scheme cost? If we assume that 38% of 10000 mothers breastfed and claimed these financial vouchers, that’s around 4000 mothers each claiming two hundred pounds, at a cost of eight hundred thousand pounds.

Wow. Eight hundred thousand pounds of free shopping for which an outcome cannot be undisputably proven. Where does all the money come from?

The Medical Research Council was funded to the tune of up to seven hundred and fifty-five million pounds in 2016/17, or which nearly half was provided as grants to researchers. But while all that may sound as a lot of money, surely there should be more accountability in how the money is used. Using up nearly a million pounds of that money for a trial whose results cannot be justified is not a good use of money.

But perhaps the babies’ height, weight and other factors pertaining to breastfeeding could have been taken? For example, if we know that breastfeeding has benefits in certain areas, such as in growth charts, perhaps the babies that were breastfed in that study could have been measured against babies who had not been breastfed to see if there had been any positive gain, and something that could correlate to breastfeeding over the six month period?

Imagine if this had been a study about literacy. Imagine that mothers who read two stories to their child up to the age of four years would receive two hundred pounds. Surely, at the end of the period, the research scientists would not merely be going to the mothers and saying “Did you read to your child? Yes? Here’s two hundred pounds.” They would try to assess the child, perhaps by means of a literacy test of some form, to see if any reading had actually taken place.

Otherwise it is just money down the drain for results which cannot be proven and cannot be relied on. In that case, what is the purpose of spending money on hearsay?

Did giving eight hundred thousand pounds encourage mothers in income-deprived areas to breastfeed for longer periods? Who knows? The only thing we can be sure of is that eight hundred thousand pounds made them say they did it.

Physical and Mental Contamination

Is there a need to start worrying about your kitchen? I don’t mean in the home improvement context, never mind that the island unit is looking a bit worse for wear, and that your swanky appliances need upgrading so you can have two ovens to cook for your little army; or maybe you are thinking you could expand beyond the microwave and gas cooker. Or perhaps you are considering the option of creating an open plan kitchen. Whatever the physical changes you are considering, they are beyond the scope of discussion. Danger lurks in your kitchen.

It doesn’t come in the form of masked strangers brandishing kitchen implements. Or ruthless critics in the form of master chefs or children. No, the hidden danger in your kitchen is more subtle, more soft, yet potentially more lethal.

The kitchen sponge.

Scientists estimate that the kitchen sponge contains the highest concentration of bacteria than anywhere in the house. On the face of things, this is not an unrealistic statement. The kitchen sponge is in contact with remnants of food as it passes over the crockery and cutlery, and while the latter are clean, microscopic elements of food have merely been transferred to the sponge. And even if you take the effort to rinse out the sponge, or go a step further by microwaving the sponge, trace elements of food bacteria will remain.

According to the Mail Online, one of the more sensationalist newspapers in the United Kingdom, there are 54 billion cells of bacteria residing on the humble sponge. But of course the Mail Online would say that – it is taking a simple fact and blowing it out of proportion in order to create a purchasing headline. (And what is a purchasing headline? It is one that intrigues you enough to make a financial physical purchase to discover more, or hook you in enough to commit your time to reading more, never mind that the headline was slightly manipulated in the first place.) The fact is, bacteria exist all around us. They are on the surfaces of things around us. But it is important to distinguish between good and bad bacteria. The majority of bacteria around us are harmless. The remaining bacteria can do us harm if they enter our bodies, which is why it is a good idea to wash hands before eating. This ensures the harmful bacteria on our hands, either from touching door knobs or taps or other contaminated surfaces, does not rest on food that we ingest. It is also a good idea to cover up exposed cuts so that bacteria does not enter the bloodstream.

Bacteria is all around us but we can’t live life in fear of it.

Can you imagine if the word bacteria was substituted with the word humans? It would give a better perspective.

The headline would read that something like “A higher concentration of criminals found in [name of city]”. But you can’t live like every human in that city will do you harm. You can only take necessary steps to avoid being negatively affected.

Just like bacteria.

The current guidelines around hand washing recommend that we  our hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds, after instances such as using the toilet, handling raw food like meat and vegetables. It is advised that we wash our hands before eating or after contact with animals.

Does washing with specialist soaps make any difference? A study by Rutgers University and GOJO Industries in the US found that there was little difference, which suggests the science between Brand X and Brand Y is as manufactured as the products themselves.

The study involved twenty volunteers and examined variables of hand washing such as brand, volume and time elapsed. A non-harmful strain of the bacteria e-coli was placed on the hands of the volunteers and then examined after washing to see how much remained.

The study found that there was little to distinguish between normal soaps and anti-microbial formulations. In fact, as long as volunteers washed their hands with soap for thirty seconds, the difference in results after washing were negligible.

There were a couple of minor limitations to the study conducted by Rutgers and GOJO Industries.

Firstly, that sample size is too small. Secondly, volunteers could not ethically be asked to handle deadly bacteria so the results may have only be applicable to that particular strain of bacteria.

There was a major stumbling block to the research however. GOJO Industries manufactures hand soaps.

We have already examined in the past how it is not a good idea if pharmaceutical companies run their own tests because the authenticity cannot be guaranteed completely if there is a bias from the outset. If a pharmaceutical company or any other manufacturing company is going to invest time, money and effort into production, it is going to choose results which have a positive bias, rather than those with a negative one which either force further research, impacting on production time and costs, or one that cause the complete abandonment of results.

Is there anything we can trust anymore? The dilemmas we have are that the media distorts reporting, and research is funded with an agenda which produces an expected outcome. It is difficult to secure funding for research if there is no meaningful purpose behind it beyond sales.

Returning to the original issue of bacteria, as long as we take necessary precautions, that is the best we can do. These precautions include replacing the sponge regularly, and not leaving unwashed dishes in the kitchen, and washing our hands to avoid contamination.

And take in what you read and hear about health and news with a pinch of objectivity. Avoid contaminating your mind too!

Set aside time and space for your own mental health

Work places huge demands on modern living. It goes without saying that over generations work demands have increased. For example, generations ago the concept of a traditional job for most people was a five-day working working week. The song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton more or less captured the essence of work at the time. (Unfortunately, it is still fairly often played, to the point that people in non-Western societies assume we still only work eight hour days, five times a week, and spend our free time sunning ourselves on the beach.) Nowadays people have to work longer hours, and travel further for work. The total time spent each day traveling and working each day could easily amount to twelve hours, and it is not like the commute is down time – we still have to catch up on emails, admin, and type away busily on the laptop. We could easily spend sixty hours doing work-related things.

And the weekends? Forget the weekends. These days there is no distinction between a weekday and a weekend. Work has steadily grown its talons and where an hourly-rated individual used to get 1.5 or two times the normal rate for working on a weekend, these days it is the same. Employers realise that in an economy with job shortages, they can get away with offering less rates but will not be short of takers.

The problem with all this is that we don’t really have much of a choice when it comes to establishing our work boundaries or exercise or rights when we realise we are being pushed beyond our work boundaries. We’re made to feel that in these times, we are lucky to hold down a job, and if we complain about the increasing demands of it, and how higher managers try to force more work on us without increasing our pay, we might get told to take a hike and end up in a more difficult situation of having no job, commitments to uphold and having to start out again. There are lots of people trapped in jobs where they have to take on more and more as the years go by, and have every ounce of work and free hour extracted from them for little pay. This places increasing mental demands on the individual not just in having to cope with work demands, but the possibility of being made redundant if he or she shows weakness by having to admit an inability to cope any more. It is a no win situation.

Is it a surprising statistic that mental health illness is on the rise? Hardly.

Nowadays people are working more to live and living to work more.

What can you do to preserve some semblance of mental health?

The first thing you can do for yourself is to establish boundaries within the home. Establish a space where work does not intrude. A good idea is often the bedroom, or even have a rule that you will not work on the bed. If you end up working on your laptop in the bed, it will not do you any good – keep at least a certain physical space for yourself.

Also try to set aside a time each day for yourself if possible. It is possibly unrealistic to say an hour each day in the modern life climate, but something like twenty minutes to half an hour would be a good idea. Use this time to wind down in your personal space doing something you enjoy, that is different from work. You may think you cannot really afford that time, but it is important to disassociate yourself from work for the sake of your long-term longevity. Think of it as enforced rest. If it works better for you, take your enforced in the middle part of the working day. You don’t necessarily have to be doing something, use it to rest or catch a power nap.

Every now again, such as on a weekend, do something different from work. Do a yoga class, learn an instrument like the piano, or play a game of tennis. The possibilities for leisure are endless. But don’t bring your work approach to your leisure. Don’t start charting your tennis serve percentage, or do anything that makes your leisure activity appear like work in a different form. The only thing you must do with a businesslike approach is to meet this leisure appointment so that your life does not revolve around a continuous stretch of work.

We can moan about it but the nature of work will never revert back to how it was in the past. Those of us who long for the good old days will only make our own lives miserable with wishful thinking. Those of us who insist on working five-day weeks will find it is insufficient to maintain modern living in the twenty-first century. We will all end up working longer and harder in the current economic climate, and even if times improve, employers will be unlikely to go back to pre-existing forms of remuneration if workers have already been accustomed and conditioned to work at a certain level, because it is more cost effective to hire fewer employees who do more work than have the same work done by more employees. Employees have to recognise that adapting to increasing work loads are a working life skill, and that taking steps to negate increasing pressures will also be an essential part to maintaining our own mental health and well-being.

The financial considerations of investing in medicine and medical research

BBC News reports that a drug that would reduce the risk of HIV infection would result in cost savings of over £1bn over 80 years. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or Prep, would reduce infection and hence lower the treatment costs for patients in the long term.

The catch? There is one. It’s the long term.

The cost of the treatment and prevention is such that its provision for the first twenty years – bundling together the cost of medical research and production of medicine – would result in a financial loss, and parity would only be achieved after a period of about thirty to forty years; this period is hard to define because it is dependent on what the drug would cost in the future.

Prep combines two anti-HIV drugs, emtricitabine and tenofovir. The medical trials behind it have concluded it has an effective rate of over one in five when it comes to protecting men who have unprotected sex with men from HIV infection. The exact figure is close to 86%.

Prep can be used either on a daily basis, or on what has been termed a sexual event basis – using it for two days before, during and after periods of unprotected sex.

The research model analysed the potential impact of Prep and found that it could reduce infection rates by over a quarter. The cost of the treatment itself, comparative to the cost of treating infection, would result in a saving over one billion pounds over eight years.

However, it does raise a few ethical questions. If the National Health Service is aiming to be a sustainable one – and one of the aims of sustainability is to empower citizens to take responsibility for their own health –  shouldn’t it be considering less about how it will balance the books, but spend more on education for prevention in the first place? The cost of producing Prep on the NHS would be £19.6 billion over 80 years; while the estimated savings from treatment would be £20.6 billion over the same period. Educating people not to have unprotected sex with those at the risk of HIV arguably would result in a higher saving over a lower time period. Perhaps the NHS should consider ways of reducing cost more significantly, rather than latching on to a cheaper prevention drug immediately. If consumer behaviour is not going to change, symptoms are still going to surface, and the provision of Prep on the NHS may only encourage less self-regulation and awareness.

Airbnb style recuperation for hospital patients

Would you welcome a stranger into your home? Would you have a spare room set aside for them? Perhaps not. But what if you were paid to do so? This is what some hospital bosses are considering to relieve overcrowding in hospital wards, that patients do their recuperating in private homes, rather than in the hospital. You offer a room if you have one available, and the hospital rents it from you for a patient. It is like an airbnb for hospitals.

On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. Hospital overcrowding is lessened, home owners get a bit of spare cash, the recuperating patient gets a bit of company … everyone’s happy. Patients staying out of hospitals mean that the backlog of operations can be cleared more quickly, resulting in a better streamlined NHS that benefits every citizen.

This idea is being piloted by the startup CareRooms. “Hosts”, who do not necessarily need to have previous experience in healthcare, could earn £50 a night and up to maximum of £1000 a month putting up local residents who are awaiting discharge from hospital. The pilot will start with 30 patients and the hope is that this will expand.

AgeUK claims that patients were being “marooned” in hospitals, taking up beds while 2.2 million days are lost annually to delayed transfers of care.

The specifics, however, do not seem to hold up to scrutiny. Who is responsible for the overall welfare of the patient? Once a patient is transferred to this “care” home, the responsibility of medical care is devolved to someone with basic first-aid training.

Prospective hosts are also required to heat up three microwave meals each day and supply drinks. Unfortunately it opens the issues of safeguarding, governance and possible financial and emotional abuse of people at their most vulnerable time.

The recuperating patients will “get access to a 24-hour call centre, tele-medical GP and promised GP consultation within four hours.”

The underlying question, though, is would you, though, want your loved ones to be put through this kind of care?

This is cost-cutting at its worst. The NHS is cutting costs, cutting ties and cutting responsibilities for those supposedly under its care. It would be a sad day if this kind of devolved responsibility plan became approved.