Did Media Erase Pulitzer Winner's Bad Habit?

By Jennifer Matesa 02/21/12

Most coverage of the double Pulitzer Prize-winner's death has focused on his asthma and allergy, without mentioning his heavy smoking.

Anthony Shadid: great reporter and heavy
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It’s been widely reported that two-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died at 43 last Thursday of an asthma attack, apparently triggered by an allergy to horses. But much less mentioned is that Shadid—a brilliant and dedicated reporter and by all accounts a humane and generous man—was also a longtime heavy smoker who wanted to quit and couldn’t. And that smoking has life-threatening effects for people with asthma. A very few mentions of Shadid’s nicotine habit appear on the Internet: “He knew he shouldn’t smoke because of his asthma, but he felt it was a forgivable peccadillo,” wrote one former colleague in The Atlantic. “RIP Anthony Shadid. Last december he told me he was quitting smoking in a month,” tweeted another the day after Shadid died. The Times has yet to respond to our questions about why it didn't mention that Shadid was a smoker.

Neil C. Thomson, MD, honorary senior research fellow at the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, tells The Fix, “Cigarette smoking in asthma is associated with high rates of life-threatening asthma attacks and greater asthma mortality.” Thomson, a world leader in research about the effects of smoking on asthma, says it’s difficult to tell whether smoking directly causes a fatal attack, but notes, “In general, smokers with asthma are at risk of developing more severe symptoms, higher frequency of attacks of asthma, and worse asthma-specific quality of life compared to never-smokers with asthma.” Crucially, he adds, smoking also appears to make asthma patients less sensitive to the effects of medications used to manage attacks. Follow-up stories about the dangers of asthma in the aftermath of Shadid’s death have suggested that perhaps his condition wasn’t well controlled by the medications he carried with him.

Thomson’s research has found that between one fifth and one third of asthmatic adults in developed countries are smokers. The best treatment for smokers with asthma? Quit smoking. But quit-rates are low, as Thomson writes in an article published in this month's issue of Chest journal. Because of the critical dangers of smoking for asthmatics he calls for more large randomized clinical trials of drug treatment in asthma patients who are active smokers.

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.