Cannabis use linked with testicular cancer

There is an interesting story currently doing the rounds of the mainstream media and blogosphere, following the publication of a research paper that draws a link between habitual dope smoking among men and a doubling in the risk of contracting testicular cancer.

I do not have immediate access to the paper, but from the popular media reports the science looks interesting, and it doesn’t surprise me to learn that regular and heavy use of cannabis increases the likelihood of serious physical as well as mental illness. The same applies to many drugs and foodstuffs when consumed habitually.

What interests me is not so much the reported correlation between cannabis and testicular cancer, but rather the newsworthiness of this particular story, and the way in which other similar science developments are announced.

Taking the article on the BBC News website as an example, I note that the scary aspects to the story are balanced with caveats which put the research into perspective. Popular science reporting is often criticised for being sensationalist and unbalanced, so whoever wrote the BBC piece deserves credit for doing such a thorough job.

There is, however, a touch of sensationalism in the choice of topic. As a male of the species it certainly grabs my attention, so to speak, and there is a public interest involved in reporting health risks associated with such popular pastimes as dope smoking. Especially when the warning is directed primarily at pubescent young men who are most at risk.

That said, the caveats negate the impact of the statement linking cannabis use with testicular cancer. For one thing the study is epidemiological: a statistical overview of disease incidence and distribution, which says nothing about the physical mechanisms involved in tumour formation triggered by chemicals in cannabis. Also, the sample size is reported to be small, and the researchers acknowledge that the results could be no more than a “statistical blip”.

What we have here is preliminary work that highlights the need for more detailed research. So does it deserve such high profile reporting in the mainstream media? In my view, no; it doesn’t warrant all the column inches, but the cynic in me can see how it got them.