No Tobacco Day in Indonesia? Try a ‘health cigarette’

As the world marks No Tobacco Day, Indonesia is again in the spotlight and The Jakarta Post has again covered itself in infamy. On the eve of today’s event, the English-language daily published another installment in its bizarre campaign to promote “healthy cigarettes”. Using pseudo-scientific language, the author of an “opinion” piece claims that cancer patients are being successfully treated with scientifically altered cigarettes that vacuum up all harmful “free radicals” linked mercury.

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny:

… apparently, a biochemist from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) has found a way to do just that — neutralise tobacco through a nanobiological process. i.e. a process characterised by the interplay between physics, materials science, synthetic organic chemistry, engineering and biology. The researcher has successfully treated a number of terminal lung cancer patients through a detoxification method that includes smoking the “healthy cigarettes” of her invention.

The unnamed scientist sounds suspiciously like Dr. Greta Zahar, of “Divine Cigarettes” fame. But Alita Damar, the writer of the opinion piece, seems to follow the template set by Australian contributor Murray Clapham last year and doesn’t name the mastermind behind this historic medical breakthrough. Best to keep all those desperate cancer sufferers guessing! She continues:

Indeed, the nanostructure molecular blocks of these health cigarettes remove the electrons of the free radical gases contained in tobacco smoke, in particular those promoted by mercury, thereby neutralising the ill-effects of smoking. Unlike regular cigarettes, this cigarette smoke is “odorless”.

So all the harmful effects of smoking, from impotence to stroke and heart disease and emphysema, not to mention cancer, are nullified by this new treatment. And what of the doubters? They’re dismissed out of hand:

Naturally, the controversial method has raised controversy [spellbinding wordplay here] in the wake of the anti-tobacco campaign here and around the world. Speculation has also been rife that she might work for the tobacco industry. It’s not true, of course. Years ago most patients would only survive in the next few months due to their poor prognostics, but many of whom are still alive.

And what, dare we ask, is the evidence that smoking such cigarettes cures or halts the spread of cancer? None. Unless you factor in the power of the placebo. In the absence of any evidence, we must conclude that the free radical, nano-engineering blah blah being touted here is just another form of “alternative medicine” which desperately ill people will try as a last resort. And as The Economist noted last week, there is very little evidence that alternative medicines work beyond the placebo effect, which may be considerable.

Damar claims that the mysterious researchers are part of the “complexity science” movement, and she notes that they have “presented” their findings at international meetings:

As controversial as it may seem, the detoxification process is based on meta-engineering, for example, the development of new knowledge…

This science, which includes the less popular quantum physics, deals with cells and interaction between cells. It thereby enables a better understanding on how the whole body system functions, thus leading to the achievement of “holistic health”. Hence, we are speaking of a science that potentially brings about breakthroughs in medical science which is generally based on reductionism, or a science that may well “revolutionise” medicine.

The detoxification method has been presented in a number of international forums attended by scientists working on Theoretical Physics and Nano or Computer Science, such as the recent ICEME (International Conference on Engineering and Meta-Engineering) in Florida, the US.

I looked up the proceedings of this conference (which one anonymous blogger described as “junk” ) and found the paper to which Damar appears to be referring. It’s by Sutiman B. Sumitro, identified as representing the Department of Biology and “Laboratory of Molecular Biology” at Brawijaya University in West Java.

The paper is titled “Study on Biradical Based Complex Structure: A PossibleWay to Find out Natural Nanoparticles from the Human Body”. A paper with the same name by Sutiman Sumitro  also appears on the fascinating website of something called the Indonesia Nanobiology Institute.  Take the time to read the 4-page paper and decide for yourself if it’s credible. I’m not a scientist so I can only guess.

Sumitro is a long-standing associate of Zahar, that “strange granny” I’ve mentioned before. They seem to be the driving forces of the “nanobiology institute” and co-author articles posted there. Check out the paper titled “Overcoming Cigarette for Health without altering the Flavor (Brief illustration of scientific background and evidences)”. Fascinating. It says Zahar is from the “Free Radicals Institute” of Malang. So many institutes I just can’t keep up. Here’s the abstract, or as the authors put it, the “Basic Concept and Philosophy”:

This is about technology to eliminate free-radicals and to transform particulates contained in the smoke having characteristic to develop order. The idea is based on the assumption that in the biological system, life is an ordered system with internal driven activities. We consider a complexity concepts cover self-organization and edge-of-chaos phenomena in the living systems. As may we know that in the basic process of life (called metabolism), there is ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair and perpetuate itself. Thermodynamically, the ordered structure of the living system is maintained by continually exert entropy to the outside of the system.

Pretty clear, yeah? They even include a diagram to illustrate “complexity in living system”:

So, we can rest assured the Nobel committee is on its way to Bandung or Malang (or wherever) to bestow its honours on Dr. Zahar (who has previously stated she has no interest in having her work reviewed by “Western” scientists), her colleague  Sutiman Sumitro and their groundbreaking team. When are all those silly Western evidence-freaks going to come to their senses?

Sadly, The Jakarta Post isn’t the only outlet for those willing to peddle this stuff. Take a look at this blog for more.

For a dose of reality, check out this story in the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday, with the depressing stats on smoking in Indonesia.

Or check the National Cancer Institute’s website and read what it has to say about free radicals (such as oxygen) and antioxidants (such as vitamin C). It says that while serious research is ongoing, recent “large-scale, randomised clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions” about whether antioxidants slow or prevent the development of cancer. As for actually reversing that damage, there seems to be no evidence at all.

There is also serious research being done into the use of nanoparticles to fight cancer. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, have sent gold nanoparticles into the nuclei of cancer cells and killed them (NB: sent particles into cancer cells, not used particles to hoover up free radicals). Their research has been cited as a communication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

I’d love to know who is behind these opinion pieces and features in The Jakarta Post, coming as they do on the eve of No Tobacco Day and as the government tries to improve its appalling record on smoking regulations. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the tobacco industry’s advertising dollars, would it?

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