Photo: cobblucas @ Flickr.com

Scientists are often fond of saying “correlation does not prove causality.” That meaning: just because two things happen at the same time or in sequence in no way implies that one caused the other. They may simply have coincidentally happened in an order tantalizing us to make hasty assumptions.

I cannot say for certain that the study the University of Rochester released today does or does not display that false sense of causality. But my sense is that much more research is probably necessary. This study followed about 5,000 respondents to a questionnaire about pain after treatment for back issues. The results pretty conclusively correlated less back pain with those who either quit smoking years ago or never smoked, compared to those who currently smoked. However:

Of the 5,333 people, those who had never smoked or had quit some time ago reported less pain than smokers or those who had just quit. By the end of the follow-up period, the people who had recently quit or who quit during treatment showed significant improvements in pain. People who continued to smoke during treatment had no improvement in pain on all scales.

Behrend noted that younger people tended to comprise the group of current smokers and those who only decided to quit during treatment; this is consistent with other studies showing that smoking is associated with degenerative spine disease at a younger age. Older patients tended to comprise the group who had never smoked or quit long ago.

The trouble here is that we’re dealing with two hugely divergent groups of people. To simply say that the fact that they smoke or don’t smoke is one correlated item is to completely under cut all the other vastly significant differences between these two groups. For example: those who continue to smoke into old age are probably also making a great deal many more decisions which are not beneficial to their health. And those who quit smoking while still young are probably eager to move on.

When I quit smoking six years or so ago, I swore I’d never be what I always referred to as a “Born Again Non-Smoker.” It is easy, when smoking is such a great scapegoat and straw man, to blame the habit for all the ills of any individual and claim the Holy Grail of health benefits every time something seems to prove a socially agreed-upon conclusion. But this report leaves a whole lot to be desired in the facts department.