Background: The epidemiologic literature is replete with conceptual discussions about causal inference, but little is known about how the causal criteria are applied in public health practice. The criteria for causal inference in use today by epidemiologists have been shaped substantially by their use over time in reports of the U.S. Surgeon General on Smoking and Health.
Methods: We reviewed two classic reports on smoking and health from expert committees convened by the US Surgeon General, in 1964 and 1982, in order to evaluate and contrast how the committees applied causal criteria to the available evidence for the different cancer sites at different time periods. We focus on the evidence for four cancer sites in particular that received detailed reviews in the reports: lung, larynx, esophagus and bladder.
Results: We found that strength of association and coherence (especially dose-response, biological plausibility and epidemiologic sense) appeared to carry the most weight; consistency carried less weight, and temporality and specificity were apparently not applied at all in some cases. No causal claim was made for associations with a summary odds ratio of less than 3.0.
Conclusion: Our findings suggest that the causal criteria as described in textbooks and the Surgeon General reports can have variable interpretations and applications in practice. While the authors of these reports may have considered evidential factors that they did not explicitly cite, such lack of transparency of methods undermines the purpose of the causal criteria to promote objective, evidence-based decision making. Further empirical study and critical examination of the process by which causal conclusions are reached can play an important role in advancing the practice of epidemiology by helping public health scientists to better understand the practice of causal inference.