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The Straight Dope 

Return of the Planet of the Hyperactive Alien Schoolmarms

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We all know smoking cigarettes can kill you, but it seems to me that, as with most vices, there's a difference between use and abuse. People who drink too much destroy their livers, but people who have one drink of red wine per day actually help their hearts. I'll gladly accept the fact that smoking several packs a day is harmful, but what about having only three cigarettes a day, one after every meal? Does it really do any harm? Is there any chance it's actually good for you?

--Michael Dare, Hollywood, California

Funny you should bring this up. After years of research saying that smoking was the worst threat to public health since the plague, several recent studies suggest it may have at least one health benefit: it prevents or at least slows the onset of Alzheimer's disease. For obvious reasons these reports have been accompanied by a certain amount of embarrassed hemming and hawing. From a big-picture standpoint smoking is definitely bad for you, and nobody wants to give people an excuse to do more of it. Still, facts is facts. I quote: "A statistically significant inverse association between smoking and Alzheimer's disease was observed at all levels of analysis, with a trend towards decreasing risk with increasing consumption" (International Journal of Epidemiology, 1991). "The risk of Alzheimer's disease decreased with increasing daily number of cigarettes smoked before onset of disease.... In six families in which the disease was apparently inherited ...the mean age of onset was 4.17 years later in smoking patients than in non-smoking patients from the same family" (British Medical Journal, June 22, 1991). "Although more data are needed ... [an analysis of 19 studies suggests] nicotine protects against AD" (Neuroepidemiology, 1994). Nicotine injections significantly improved certain types of mental functioning in Alzheimer's patients (Psychopharmacology, 1992). One theory: nicotine improves the responsiveness of Alzheimer's patients to acetylcholine, an important brain chemical.

I know, I know. Now that chimney at work will claim he's preventing you from going senile. Tell him it's a little early to start gloating. Some of the research is contradictory. At least one scientist thinks smokers are less likely to develop Alzheimer's mainly because they die of smoking-related diseases first. Smoking isn't like low-to-moderate alcohol use, which is probably harmless and may even be beneficial. Although the data is unclear, many believe the relationship between smoking and disease is linear: the more you smoke, the greater your risk--but any smoking presents some risk. Right now the only known benefit of smoking is a societal one: if the heavy smokers die young they won't deplete the retirement funds for everybody else.

RETURN OF THE PLANET OF THE HYPERACTIVE ALIEN SCHOOLMARMS

The grammarian microchip in your incontrovertibly mighty brain was clearly malfunctioning when you wrote, "You try explaining convection currents and the Coriolis effect in 600 words or less" [December 16]. What you meant to say was "600 words or fewer." I suggest you pull a Newt here and blame this embarrassing solecism on snarky liberal/commie McGoverniks in the Straight Dope proofreading division. --David English, West Somerville, Massachusetts

David, how long have you been reading this column? Don't you know that the proper response on coming across some apparent mistake is not "Hah! Cecil effed up!" but "How is it that I have tragically wallowed in error all these years?" I quote from the American Heritage Dictionary, third edition: "Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less (as in Give your reasons in 25 words or less)."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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