Causal inference is an important link between the practice of cancer epidemiology and effective cancer prevention. Although many papers and epidemiology textbooks have vigorously debated theoretical issues in causal inference, almost no attention has been paid to the issue of how causal inference is practiced. In this paper, we review two series of review papers published between 1985 and 1994 to find answers to the following questions: which studies and prior review papers were cited, which causal criteria were used, and what causal conclusions and public health recommendations ensued. Fourteen published reviews on alcohol and breast cancer and 6 published reviews on vasectomy and prostate cancer were examined. For both series of reviews, nearly all available published studies were cited except for ecological studies and prior reviews. Sources of causal criteria were often not provided. When they appeared, all citations were either the 1964 Surgeon General's report or works of Austin Bradford Hill. Reviews often excluded and sometimes altered criteria without giving reasons for these changes. The criteria of consistency and strength of association were almost always used accompanied by dose-response and biological plausibility in a majority of reviews. The criterion of temporality, considered by many methodologists to be a necessary causal condition, was infrequently used. Confounding and bias were often added considerations. Public health recommendations were not discussed in nearly one-half of the reviews.

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