Dear Kaye Adams

Thanks for inviting me onto your BBC Scotland radio show this morning to discuss the alleged health risks associated with cannabis use.    I’ll be straight up with you here.  I usually ignore requests to appear on your show because the format isn’t conducive to informed debate.  Discussion on complex subjects often degenerates into smug soundbites and daft opinionated rants.  More often than not listeners lugs are treated to a bona fide idiot fest.  All very entertaining no doubt but hardly serious journalism.

Today was worse than usual.  You trailered your show with the catchy soundbite that smoking a single cannabis joint was as dangerous as smoking twenty cigarettes.   Dame Helena Shovelton, the Chief Executive of British Lung Foundation, prepared the ground for this media feeding frenzy when she issued a statement today which claimed:

“Young people in particular are smoking cannabis unaware that, for instance, each cannabis cigarette they smoke increases their chances of developing lung cancer by as much as an entire packet of 20 tobacco cigarettes.”

Your programme took this at face value and gave an inordinate amount of air space to a spokesperson for the BLF who repeatedly reiterated this claim without citing a single source to back it up.  If I hadn’t participated in the programme his claims would have gone unchallenged.  Yet your good self, as presenter, allowed him to repeatedly assert this wild allegation seemingly oblivious to the possibility that this viewpoint is morally repugnant and scientifically disputed.   Left unchallenged such havering could cause widespread harm to genuine tobacco and drugs education.


On your show I referred to an American report into the relationship between cannabis use and lung cancer .  My source was a study  conducted by the University of California and commissioned and funded by the National Institution of Health which is part of the US government’s Department of Health.  It hardly needs stated that the US government are unlikely to be a source of pro-cannabis propaganda.

This NIH report was of international importance because it was the largest ever control study conducted anywhere into the links between cannabis use and lung cancer.  The control group included 1200 people who had contacted lung, head and neck cancers plus another 1040 people who had no record of any cancer but were matched by age, sex and neighbourhood.

The questions asked of participants were extensive and personal.  Researchers determined whether cannabis users were occasional, moderate or heavy users; and participants were pressed to reveal their life history of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis consumption.

The Washington Post flagged up the report’s conclusions in an article headlined “STUDY FINDS NO CANCER-MARIJUANA CONNECTION” (26 5 2006).  Donald Tashkin, author of the report, and a respected pulmonologist of thirty years standing, admitted surprise:

“We hypothesised that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and the association would be more positive with heavier use.  What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.”

Not only did the report conclude that heavy cannabis users – people who had smoked over 22,000 joints in a lifetime – had no higher incidence of these cancers than the corresponding control group, it even suggested that THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, far from causing lung cancer was actually doing the opposite by killing aged cells stopping them from becoming cancerous.

It should be stressed that Donald Tashkin’s previous research work had been used extensively by both federal health agencies and drug enforcement agencies.  Nor does Tashkin believe that cannabis is harmless.  However he stated at the time of the report that its cancer-inducing properties appeared to be of much less concern than was previously thought.


Yet here we are, just six years later, with the British Lung Foundation claiming the very opposite of the NIH report’s findings.  Depressingly almost every national newspaper and media organisation parrots this uncritically. The article above from today’s Metro is typical of the way a lie can get half way round the world before the truth gets it shoes on.  Even the supposedly liberal press – such as today’s Independent as well as your own BBC News website – simply mirrored these sentiments.

This lackadaisical attitude to news gathering poses serious questions of the standard of journalism in the UK.  Have the British media become so lazy that they just rehash press releases and pass them off as news stories?  Call Kaye suggests this is indeed the case.  This gung-ho approach to journalism was exacerbated by you inviting a BLF spokesperson to make wildly inaccurately claims on live radio without bothering to crosscheck whether their information was factual or accurate.

It should also be noted that the BLF website makes a completely contradictory statement regarding cannabis use and lung cancer.  I read this out on the programme but you completely ignored it and haughtily dismissed my contribution as merely “trading claims” with John Cant from the BLF.   For the record here’s what the BLF website says:  

“It is difficult to ascertain whether or not the inhalation of cannabis causes damage to the lungs and airways independently of the tobacco smoke or not.”  This is a far cry from ” a joint a day is as bad as 20 cigarettes”.

Far be it from me to suggest there is a hidden agenda going on here but your programme should have stated at the top of the show that the BBC is listed on the BLF website as one of their corporate sponsors.

I hope, Kaye, you are starting to realise the damage that lazy journalists like yourself have done by parroting a press release without critically examining its contents.  It wouldn’t be a bad thing if you made an on air public apology to all those health professionals who are doing difficult work trying to tackle the REAL dangers of tobacco smoking.  They must be livid at this report and they way it trivialises the health risks posed by tobacco.

Yours sincerely

Kevin Williamson

CALL KAYE, 6 June 2012

Can be listened to ….  here ….. for the next seven days.


“Cannabis Smoking Not Linked To Lung Cancer Case-Control Study says”