THE SMOKING ISSUE
An essay by Joe Jackson
My articles in the New York Times and UK Daily Telegraph, protesting
smoking bans and antismoking hysteria, have attracted a huge amount
of attention. Since this has unfortunately become such a contentious
issue, and since I'm now constantly asked to discuss it, I'm going
to take this opportunity to set out my position as clearly as I
can, without the ‘filter' of editors, the time constraints of radio,
etc. This essay was primarily written for my website, but it can
be freely downloaded, copied and circulated. When
printed, it should run to around 12 pages.
I'm ‘pro-choice' on smoking, not just because I want to smoke
(I don't even smoke very much) but also because I'm concerned about
certain worrying political and cultural trends. The antismoking
movement is on such a roll at the moment, and smoking has been
so thoroughly demonised, that some of what I have to say is bound
to raise a few eyebrows. All I can say is that my views are carefully
considered and extensively researched.
(1) DANGERS OF SMOKING
Two or three years ago I considered giving up my own moderate
enjoyment of tobacco because of the constant barrage of horrific
statistics. But antismoking propaganda in the USA (I was living
mostly in New York) seemed so overblown, so hysterical, that I
became skeptical. So instead of giving up smoking, I started doing
research. At first my mind was pretty open; I half expected to
find that smoking was even worse than I thought, and I decided
that, since I wasn't a hardcore nicotine junkie, I could live without
it. Instead, I've been astonished, again and again, by how flimsy
much of the antismoking evidence really is. By now I'm absolutely convinced
that the dangers of smoking (and ‘secondhand smoke' in particular)
are being greatly exaggerated, for a number of reasons, many of
which have less to do with health than with politics, money and
People used to be guided by intuition, experience, observation,
moderation, pleasure, folklore, the testimony of friends and acquaintances,
and their family history. Increasingly, though, we're expected
to be guided by Government Statistics. The problem is that so much
of what we're told is politicised, out of context, out of proportion,
or just plain false. The bald statement ‘Smoking Kills!' makes
us skeptical right away, since we can see for ourselves that in
most cases, it doesn't.
One good example of this lack of balance and perspective is the
way we're told that smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer,
without being told what the overall ‘baseline' risk is in the first
place. The statistics always sound alarming; we're told that smokers
have a ‘600% increased risk', for instance, because this sounds
worse than six. Other sources (the majority, it seems) insist that
smokers are actually ten (1000%) times more likely to get lung
cancer. Others quote the pioneering studies of Sir Richard Doll,
who reckoned that 166 in 100,000 smokers die from lung cancer,
as opposed to 7 in 100,000 nonsmokers, so you have a 24 times higher
risk of getting lung cancer if you smoke.
Antismokers aren't lying when they tell you that smokers are,
statistically, more likely to die of lung cancer. But they don't
tell you, for instance, that only a minority of those deaths could
be considered ‘premature.' They also don't point out a basic statistical
fact: that a large increase on a very small number can still be
a very small number. (Think of it this way: if you buy twenty Lottery
tickets instead of one, your chances of winning would go up by
2000% - but could still be infinitesimal). So, if you're good at
maths you can figure this out for yourself: even if you accept
Prof. Doll's numbers, your chances of NOT getting lung cancer are
still more than 99%! Besides, we still don't actually know what
causes cancer or how to cure it, and lung cancer (with, incidentally,
about 40 risk factors in addition to smoking) is particularly hard
to treat. This understandably drives doctors and scientists crazy,
and they are anxious to bring down lung cancer rates in any way
they can. Targeting smoking - something quite a few people viscerally
dislike anyway - seems like a good bet, especially when smokers
are a minority. And the more smoking is targeted, the fewer resources
are allocated to lung cancer research. H ealth professionals have ‘closed
ranks' on this issue, and like Nancy Reagan, they're trying to
make a problem go away by telling us to ‘just say no.' As for nonsmoking
lung cancer victims . . . well, too bad.
We are also told ‘Smoking Causes H eart Disease' even though there
are something like 300 risk factors for that, and some very large
studies (for instance, the well-known study of the citizens of
Framingham, Massachussets, which has been going on since 1948) have
shown the link with smoking to be rather weak. Still, such is the
imperative to demonise smoking, these and other diseases are labeled ‘smoking-related'
and every death from them just added to the ‘smoking-related' tally
- whether or not the sufferers smoked! At the same time, the large
number of smokers (more than half) who die of these diseases at
normal (i.e., old) ages have their deaths attributed to smoking
even when this cannot be proven. Still no one puts this all
into perspective and points out that a majority of us will
live into our 70s and die of either some sort of cancer, some sort
of heart trouble, or some other ‘smoking-related' disease whether
we smoke or not. Cancer, especially, is mostly a disease of the
old, and the main reason it looms so large these days is that we're
We are told that an ‘estimated' third of all smokers will die
of the habit, and then this mysteriously goes up to a half, and
then the ‘estimated' starts to be dropped in favour of just a statement
of ‘fact'. Still we're never told what exactly is meant by a ‘smoker'.
In many cases it's only people who've smoked over 20 cigarettes
a day for decades - more moderate cigarette smokers or cigar or
pipe smokers don't count. In other studies a ‘smoker' is anyone
who has smoked 100 cigarettes in their lifetime; in others, someone
who quit 5 months ago is a ‘nonsmoker,' while in others someone
is called a ‘smoker' when they quit 20 years ago! Estimates of
deaths from smoking are based mostly on speculative mathematical
projections and should be treated with much more skepticism than
is currently the case. For instance, until very recently, a completely
arbitrary13% of cervical cancer deaths were attributed to smoking,
but it has now been proven that almost 100% are caused by a virus.
Most of us can't think of more than one person we've known who
has died from smoking - and even then, the chances are that they
died in their 70s, and that if we think about it, we can't be absolutely
sure they didn't die from a combination of factors, some unknowable.
It simply cannot possibly be true that anywhere near a half of
everyone who ever smokes is doomed to a premature death. If that
were true we would have worked it out long ago from our own experience,
and hardly anyone would smoke, and tobacco would be illegal. But
still the statistics grind on. We are told that 120,000 people
a year in the UK are ‘estimated' to die from ‘smoking-related diseases.'
Yet the number of death certificates which declare ‘cause of death:
smoking' is actually only a few hundred. It's much harder to establish
smoking as the cause of death than we are led to believe.
No one suggests, either, that diet, lifestyle or genetics may
be factors. Native Americans smoke much more than white Americans,
yet have half the rate of lung cancer. The Greeks, Japanese, Italians
and Spaniards are the world's heaviest smokers, but are all right
at the top of the life expectancy charts, with lower rates of ‘smoking-related'
disease than Americans or Northern Europeans. The Japanese have
especially low rates of lung cancer - though these have risen over
the last couple of decades at the same time as smoking has
declined. Meanwhile, Chinese women have one of the highest
in the world even though only 2% of them smoke. Such facts are
rarely mentioned, since in an antismoking climate they are inconvenient
- as is any suggestion that air pollution from cars, etc, might
be a factor in ‘smoking-related' diseases. Much easier just to
keep bashing smoking!
In the UK, at least, Class is (perhaps predictably) invoked in
the smoking debate. We are now being told that the working class
has much more disease and premature death than the middle class,
and that the biggest reason is that they smoke more. But poorer
and less-educated people are also much more likely to have bad
diets, drink too much, have higher cholestorol, exercise too little,
work too hard, and have higher exposure to stress, pollution, and
all kinds of other things which are factors in ‘smoking-related'
disease, and which are impossible to separate from smoking itself.
You can always find something to single out as the ‘curse of the
working classes'. In 1920s America it was booze; now it's tobacco.
Dr Ken Denson of the Thame Thrombosis and H aemostasis Research
Foundation (one of the few British doctors currently willing to
speak out against what he calls the antismoking ‘witch hunt') has
argued persuasively, in many medical journal articles and letters,
that rates of ‘smoking-related' disease could be brought way down
just by encouraging smokers to eat more fruit and vegetables and
less fat, and/or exercise more. (One recent study has shown that
one-pack-a-day smokers who exercise live longer than sedentary
nonsmokers). In Dr Denson's view, the medical community is failing
to offer smokers protection by not educating them about all their
options, and by instead relentlessly pushing a kind of zero-tolerance
Prohibitionism which will inevitably backfire.
There are other ways in which antismoking zeal doesn't actually
help smokers or anyone else. For instance, tremendous progress
has been made in research and development of safer cigarettes;
but this has been systematically crushed by the ‘antis', since
it could undermine their efforts towards total prohibition. Even
today's regular cigarettes are safer than the unfiltered, high-tar
cigarettes which were the norm in the 1950s, when much of the scientific
antismoking evidence was first established. But for antismokers,
the only good news is bad news - an attitude we shall see again
in this essay's sections on secondhand smoke and on air filtration/ventilation.
Likewise, there is a huge difference in risk between smoking 5
or 10 cigarettes a day and smoking 40 or 60; and although this
seems glaringly obvious, it is currently taboo, in medical circles,
to even suggest it. Instead we are told that there is ‘no safe
level' of smoking - when there are safe levels of every imaginable
kind of poison, pollution, radiation, carcinogens, etc. In fact,
tobacco is the only ‘recreational drug' which does not impair brain
function or alter behaviour, and it actually has a beneficial effect
on certain diseases, notably Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. There
is quite a bit of evidence that a normal healthy person can smoke
up to ten or so cigarettes a day with no ill-effects whatsoever,
and even some benefits, e.g. stress reduction, weight control,
and improved concentration and memory. (The Framingham study has
shown that smokers of up to 10 cigarettes a day have less heart
disease than nonsmokers).
We are told that smoking is nothing but a joyless addiction, even
though we can see that for millions of people it's a great pleasure,
and that more and more people are smoking moderately. It is in
any case hard to draw clear lines between ‘addictions', habits,
and favourite pastimes or rituals. Many people are indeed addictive
when it comes to smoking, but then again, many people are addictive
with alcohol, coffee, many drugs (including prescription ones),
sugar, sex, dieting, the gym, or TV soap operas. The term ‘addiction',
like many other things in the smoking debate, is politicised, and
overused in a further attempt to make smokers look bad and feel
We are also told that cigars and pipes are no safer than cigarettes;
yet even if you don't know that cigar smoke is chemically different
to and less carcinogenic than cigarette smoke, and almost never
fatal, isn't it obvious that you're safer when the smoke is not
In recent years, claims for the evils of smoking have become so
hysterical that ordinary people are ceasing to believe them, and
this, surely, has worrying implications for the credibility of
health authorities. A recent report showed that the sperm count
of British men seems to have declined over the last couple of decades.
The researchers had no idea why, but doctors and journalists immediately
rushed to blame it on smoking. No one pointed out that over the
last couple of decades, people have smoked much less. Similarly,
another recent scare tried to blame infertility and impotence on
smoking and perhaps even passive smoking .
No one pointed out that people smoked more in the period of the
two world wars and just after, than at any other time in history.
And what did we have in the 1950s? A baby boom! It's questionable
what purpose is served by these kinds of reports except to create
a climate of paranoia.
Then there was the recent gruesome ad campaign on UK TV showing
that smoking ‘clogs up your arteries' with disgusting goo. This
ad was so phoney it was sent up by the satirical magazine Private
Eye, which rightly pointed out that nonsmokers' arteries
clog up too, that there are many causes, and that the link to smoking
is tenuous. Anecdotally, too, we know that smokers are now castigated
at every opportunity as though tobacco were responsible for every
possible human ill. A friend of mine recently broke her wrist,
and her doctor told her it might not heal as quickly as normal
because she smoked. It actually healed more quickly than expected,
but you can bet no one attributed that to her smoking.
I'm quite sure that heavy long-term smoking has an adverse effect
on the health of quite a few people, sometimes to the point of
being a, or even the, decisive factor in their deaths.
If you perceive the risk of even moderate smoking to be unacceptable,
then don't smoke, and good luck to you. Nonsmokers often simply
cannot understand why anyone would persist in doing something which
is commonly reckoned to take about 5 years off of their lives.
But apart from the fact that this is just a guess, and can't apply
to everyone, I wish that nonsmokers would stop for a minute and
imagine how they would feel if something they loved
were being similarly targeted. Many good arguments can be made
against eating meat or drinking alcohol. But if you love steaks,
or wine, how would it feel to be constantly nagged by doctors and
politicians into becoming a vegetarian or a teetotaller? You might
well prefer to keep on enjoying your favourite pleasures and take
your chances. You might feel that five extra years without them
is not such a great prospect. You might even feel like rebelling
by eating or drinking more than ever.
The question of one's own philosophy of how to live comes into
play here, of course. Mine, just for the record, is to enjoy life
as much as possible whilst also applying as much moderation, common
sense, and consideration for others as I can manage. I also believe
that pleasure is extremely important to human beings, that our
pleasures should be given up only as an absolute last resort, and
that if the medical establishment were to see things more in that
way - i.e., as human beings - we would be hearing very different
statistics and different advice. Finally I believe that what I
choose to do to my own body is entirely my own business.
There's another philosophy, though, which feeds into Antismoking,
and goes something like: work hard to avoid absolutely everything
which current opinion holds to be bad for you, and do as much as
possible of what current opinion holds to be good for you, and
maybe you can attain perfection or invulnerability. Often, this
mindset is accompanied by a zealous desire to whip others into
shape, and/or a feeling that if anything goes wrong, it must be
someone else's fault, so let's find someone to blame - or sue.
This is all very American, and I don't think it's an accident that
antismoking mania has spread primarily through the countries most
influenced by America: Canada, Australia, and the British Isles.
But in my opinion it's not only a dreary way to live, but not ultimately
guaranteed to work any better anyway.
So, I concede that smoking isn't exactly ‘good for you' in the
same way that eating an apple or going for a swim might be good
for you. But I've also become firmly convinced that it's nowhere
near as harmful as we're currently led to believe, and that the
statistical books are being routinely cooked in order to frighten
and bully us into conforming to some ideal, standardised, manageable,
and fashionable norm of ‘health' which cannot suit everyone. A
more realistic approach would be something more like that generally
taken with alcohol: keep it away from children, educate us about
the risks, counsel moderation, offer help to those who become dangerously
addicted or sick - and then, let us take responsibility for ourselves
and leave us alone . Instead, smoking has become the scapegoat du
jour ; fashionable to blame for a whole range of problems
we don't really know what to do about, a distraction from more
serious and intractable problems, and convenient to cover up all
sorts of incompetence and corruption in health institutions. And
nowhere is this more evident than in the junk science bonanza that
is ‘secondhand smoke'.
(2) THE SMOKESCREEN: ‘SECOND H AND
Again and again, smoke-haters tell us that any debate about an
individual's choice, or right, to smoke is negated by the fact
that he or she ‘inflicts' smoke on others. And yet we all, on a
daily basis, have things ‘inflicted' on us which are harder to
escape than tobacco smoke: all kinds of pollution, carcinogens,
allergens, smells, noise, etc. Surely the real issue should be
not whether we can construct a self-righteous moral argument, but
whether something is, in fact, doing us any real harm.
Two or three decades ago, the more politically savvy members of
the antismoking movement started saying (and this is quite well-documented)
that they weren't going to make much more progress unless they
could somehow show that smokers were harming not just themselves
but others around them. The war against tobacco could then be escalated
to a whole new level. Smokers could be portrayed as at best anti-social
and at worst, murderers! Nonsmokers who previously didn't care
much about people smoking around them could be incited to righteous
intolerance. As for people who'd always hated smoke - they're the
front line, the hardcore supporters, who don't care how bad the
science is as long as it appears to legitimise their demands for
a smoke-free world. This is the basis for a huge upsurge in anti-smoking
sentiment and the spread of draconian, anti-democratic smoking
bans. And, as many scientists, academics and probably even a few
politicians are well aware, it's pretty much a hoax.
As I write this, 147 studies have been done on Secondhand Smoke
(also known as ‘passive smoking' or Environmental Tobacco Smoke,
or ETS). Many of them are ridiculously flawed, since exposure to,
and the effects of, S H S are extremely hard to measure. (36 of
the studies are ‘childhood' ones, in which a group of people -
often an insignificantly small group - are simply asked to recall
who smoked around them when they were children, and how much, whether
windows were open, etc). The vast majority of studies (including
the biggest and most credible ones) are inconclusive: i.e. they
show both positive and negative effects from S H S, do not reveal
any consistent pattern, and have to be ‘thrown out.' Only 24 studies
have managed to show a ‘statistically significant' risk, which,
in this context, means simply that the data is ‘coherent'; i.e.
it all falls on the ‘risk' side. But it's important to realise
that the risks are still so small they would not be taken seriously
in any normal scientific context. Your backyard barbecue produces
far more carcinogens. H igher cancer risks have been found in eating
mushrooms, drinking milk, using mouthwash, wearing a bra, and keeping
pet birds. Statistically, you are much more likely to die in a
bicycle accident, or from being left-handed and using right-handed
things, than from exposure to smoke. (I swear I'm not making this
Besides, even if they could show a high degree of statistical
significance, S H S studies have all kinds of other problems, including
biases and confounders (conflicting factors) which are not taken
into account. Just as with ‘active' smoke, all the diseases supposedly
caused by ‘passive' smoke have multiple causes. Then there's the
fact that the most numerous and (marginally) most convincing studies
are those which look for disease in the nonsmoking spouses of smokers
- spouses who invariably have the same diet and lifestyle risk
factors as the smokers. Ultimately, even if you could find a really
convincing way to test the effects of S H S, you could never prove
that it was the cause of someone's illness anyway.
Nevertheless, many people now believe that S H S must, intuitively,
be harmful since ‘active' or ‘primary' smoking is so harmful. But
the dangers of smoking are exagerrated in the first place, and
even the actual levels of S H S exposure are exagerrated to an
incredible degree. The largest study to date on levels of S H S
exposure was published by the US National Center for Environmental
H ealth, which studied 10,000 exposed nonsmokers for levels of
cotinine (a nicotine derivative which is thought to demonstrate
the level of tobacco smoke exposure). The mean cotinine level of
the nonsmokers was 1/500th of that of the active smoker. And by
the way: (a) there are other sources of cotinine, including, for
instance, tomatoes, and (b) showing that people have small amounts
of cotinine in their blood is not the same as demonstrating that
it's doing them any harm.
The whole issue of passive smoke exists only at the outer limits
of significance, both in the strict scientific and in the more
general sense. Proving anything at all is like trying to thread
a needle with a sledgehammer. For instance, 28 studies to date
have shown more evidence of risk reduction than elevation,
and although only one achieves ‘statistical significance', it does
originate from the World H ealth Organisation. So you could, if
it were politically expedient to do so, construct an argument that
S H S is good for you. It would be a fraudulent argument, but only
fractionally more so than the argument that S H S is a grave threat.
Epidemiology (the study of the causes of disease) is an inexact
science at best, and in such studies a risk factor of any less
than 200-300% is considered so weak as to be essentially meaningless.
The best the antismokers have been able to come up with is 20-30%.
Based on this, and other creative uses of statistics, the ‘antis'
are quite happy to spread fear and alarm, blithely inventing hundreds
or thousands of deaths which ‘must be' occurring from S H S, despite
the total lack of actual proven, documented cases.
This last point is worth emphasising: it is a fact that there
is not one death certificate, anywhere in the world, stating ‘cause
of death: passive smoking.' Indeed there is not one documented
case in which passive smoke has been proven to have killed someone,
or even made them seriously ill. H ealth professionals are challenged
over and over again to produce one, and consistently fail to do
so. Instead they just repeat the party line: that ‘experts agree'
or ‘studies have shown' that S H S kills anywhere from 700 to 53,000
people a year - and we just have to take their word for it. But
the huge discrepancy in the numbers alone tells you that these
are not body counts, but statistical computer projections. In the
case of ‘active' smoking, this is routinely done in order to hype
the danger. In the case of ‘passive' smoke, it‘s done to manaufacture
a danger which doesn't exist, or if it does, is probably too small
to be measured. The first is exaggeration; the second is nothing
less than fraud.
Anyway, I ask the reader to refer once again to his or her own
experience and common sense. H ow many of us have known anyone who
has died from S H S? H ow many bar workers have actually, demonstrably
died from S H S? Bearing in mind that people have smoked in bars
for hundreds of years, and that when more people smoked and air
filtration was non-existent, bars were much smokier?
We are told there is ‘no safe level' of exposure to secondhand
smoke. This means that if you go into a well-ventilated bar once
a year and someone on the other side of the room is smoking, you
could get lung cancer!
Incidentally, it is not true that research which casts doubt on
the dangers of S H S emanates from the tobacco industry. Most of
this research has been funded in one way or another by the pharmaceutical
industry, which has a vested interest in ‘proving' that S H S
is deadly. (More about their interest later). Regardless,
the actual sources and funding of S H S studies have made no difference
to the overall picture. For instance, the World H ealth Organisation
admitted that the risks found in its own major study were statistically
insignificant, and the US Environmental Protection Agency's classification
of S H S as a ‘Class A Carcinogen' was such a travesty of science
that it was declared invalid and thrown out by a Federal Court
(though it's still widely quoted). The aforementioned Sir Richard
Doll admitted in a recent radio interview that he had no qualms
about secondhand smoke. The British Medical Journal recently published
a huge, 40-year S H S study (Kabat/Enstrom, UCLA) which found no
danger from S H S, and after being predictably attacked by antismokers,
the editor defended the Journal in an editorial stating that the
dangers of S H S are unproven. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president
of the American Council on Science and H ealth, commenting on the
New York smoking ban, has stated that ‘the role of ETS in the development
of chronic diseases is without scientific basis. There is no evidence
that any New Yorker - patron or employee - has ever died as a result
of exposure to smoke. The link between secondhand smoke and premature
death . . . is a real stretch'.
There are many more examples, but here, for good measure, is a
quote from a well-known antismoker, the American activist Stanton
Glantz, at an Australian conference in 1990:
‘The main thing the science has done on the issue of ETS, in addition
to help people like me pay the mortgage, is it has legitimised
the concern that people don't like cigarette smoke. And that is
a strong emotional force that needs to be harnessed and used. We're
on a roll, and the bastards are on the run.'
I'm sure that many antismokers are well-intentioned, and either
really believe that S H S is deadly, or hate smoke so much that
they feel it ‘must be' hurting innocent bystanders. But anyone
who actually studies the evidence objectively would have to conclude
that (a) S H S is nothing to worry about, and (b) the dangers have
been exaggerated for purely political, or propagandistic reasons:
i.e. to stigmatise smokers, incite intolerance of smoke, and make
smoking ‘socially unacceptable'. You'ld think that antismokers
would be happy that secondhand smoke, at least, isn't really hurting
anyone. On the contrary: to admit such a thing would be to surrender
their most effective weapon.
(3) SMOKING BANS
So: an anti-smoking fanatic is elected Mayor of New York and passes
a ban on smoking in every bar, restaurant and night club, claiming
that ‘secondhand smoke' has killed more New Yorkers in the last
two years than the catastrophe of Sept. 11th! H e further exploits
that tragedy by claiming (and this has been dutifully repeated
in the media) that ‘the hospitality industry is doing better since
the ban was passed'. But the ban was introduced in mid-2003, when the
whole city economy was starting to recover from the huge
post-9/11 slump. Then, to cook the books still further, Mayor Bloomberg
includes in ‘the hospitality industry' hotels, restaurants (which
were already nonsmoking except in separate bar areas, an arrangement
which was working pretty well), fast-food outlets, Starbucks, and
even liquor stores. So, if McDonalds hires a couple of thousand
new employees, or if more people buy booze to take home because
they can't smoke in a bar - it all supposedly demonstrates the
success of the smoking ban!
Meanwhile anyone who actually goes to NY bars and clubs knows
that the ban is extremely unpopular and causing all kinds of problems, ‘bad
vibes', and significant loss of trade. (Why would the Empire State
Restaurant and Tavern Association be suing the city if business
were booming?!) Employees (whom the ban is supposed to ‘protect')
hate having to be cops, and for less tips, at that. Some lose their
jobs as smaller bars go out of business. Even jukebox companies
are protesting, because people are standing out on the street smoking
instead of feeding their machines! Many bars defy the law and let
people smoke, but they all have to display a notice with a phone
number to call ‘to report violations.' In other words, to ‘rat
on' your neighbours.
What has the ban really achieved, except lost business, anger,
confusion and social tension? No lives have actually been saved,
and people who simply don't like smoke could have been accomodated
by (a) good air-cleaning systems and (b) a market-driven choice of
smoking and nonsmoking spaces. (If there's so much popular demand
for a ban, why did it need to be enforced by law in the first place?
And why did Bloomberg wait until after he was elected before even
It is important to make this distinction: the ‘nuisance factor'
of smoke, to those who dislike it, is a separate issue. It
is not a health or safety issue concerning doctors or politicians,
but a service issue, mostly concerning the hospitality industry.
The only real justification for a total legal ban would be incontrovertible
proof that S H S is a deadly health hazard. If
that is ever anywhere near proven, I will give up smoking
immediately, law or no law, since I am not a murderer. Besides,
if we're going to accept such low thresholds of risk as a basis
for public policy, we should certainly ban workers from kitchens
(since cooking food produces carcinogens) and also ban music, since
it is well-established that loud music damages peoples' hearing.
What about bartenders in dance clubs?
Incidentally, since the ‘strongest' evidence of S H S risk comes
from ‘spousal' studies, there is a stronger case for banning smoke
in the home than in a bar. The fact that there is no effort (yet)
to do so suggests a respect for property rights. But publicans,
restaurateurs and night club owners have property rights too. Their
establishments are not funded by taxes, nor is anyone actually
compelled to enter. They have as much right to set their own smoking
policy as you do in your own living room.
A couple of other arguments for smoking bans need to be briefly
addressed. One is that ‘smokers are the minority.' True enough:
about 26% of Britons, for example, are reckoned to smoke. But in
pubs this goes up to around 50%, and in some pubs it's quite apparent
that smokers are the majority. Also, when it comes to nightlife, non smokers
are not necessarily anti smokers; in fact they mostly
don't mind smoke as long as there isn't too much of it. So blanket
smoking bans in bars and clubs are not demanded by a majority
of the people who go to them (and if they were, why was there not
even one nonsmoking bar in New York before the ban?)
But ultimately, percentages are not the point. The H ospitality
Industry is, by definition, meant to be welcoming and inclusive.
That's why there are meatless dishes on the menu, bottles of Pernod
behind the bar even though hardly anyone ever drinks it, etc etc.
Even if smokers were only 5%, that alone does not justify throwing
them out onto the street.
It is disingenuous, too, to say that smokers are not being barred
from the bar, but just barred from smoking. This is like telling
a vegetarian that his favourite restaurant has been turned into
a steakhouse - but he's still welcome! For many of us, a drink
and a smoke complement each other so perfectly that being forbidden
to smoke is not only infuriating but a genuine loss, the loss of
a cherished pleasure and a part of our lifestyle. One smoker I
know describes it as ‘like being forced to eat chips
with no salt'.
To say that smoking bans in ‘public places' (including, let's
not forget, private property like bars and clubs) are
justified in order to get more smokers to quit is equally wrongheaded.
For one thing, it is social engineering; an inappropriate politicisation
of a personal decision. It is also ineffectual as long as smoking
remains legal, since the most determined and addictive smokers
(the ones who really ‘should' quit) will simply smoke more elsewhere.
Often they smoke more than ever, out of sheer defiance. Again and
again, doctors and politicians fail to understand that pleasure
and free choice are just as important to people as ‘health'; in
fact, they are part of ‘health'. Depriving people of
their pleasures makes them unhappy. Nagging, bullying and coercing
them makes them angry and rebellious as well.
Still another spurious argument is that smoking bans are justified
so that no one's clothes or hair will ever have to smell of smoke.
This complaint is sometimes heard from bartenders who feel for
some reason that they should be exempted from the millions of people
who have to take a shower and change their clothes after work.
Once again, this can be mostly resolved by more choice and good
air-cleaning sytems (about which more in a moment). And if there
are still some occasions when the air gets smokier than it should,
is a bit of give-and-take on the part of nonsmokers really too
much to ask?
No doubt it must be pleasant for someone who dislikes smoke to
know that he or she can go anywhere, any time, and never be bothered
by the slightest whiff. Personally, I'd feel more comfortable if
dogs were universally banned, because I'm allergic to them. But
I like to think I see the bigger picture, and if anyone proposed
a dog ban, I would oppose it. I ask nonsmokers to consider this:
you don't have to deal with smoke in your home, your office, your
car, in shops, schools, cinemas, theatres, planes or trains. But
tobacco is still legal. H ow, in a free-market democracy,
can you say that we can never, at any time or in any place, enjoy
it in a social setting? If the antismokers are right about S H
S, we should not smoke at home either (unless we live alone) so
as not to endanger our family members. So if smoking is banned
in every bar - and even in private clubs - where can we
smoke? Only on street corners, which - as the antismokers are well
aware - makes us feel bad and look bad. And then we're
in trouble for making noise or leaving fag-ends on the pavement!
Some cities are even proposing to ban smokers from certain main
streets, so that children will not be corrupted by the sight of
us. Why not go all the way and put us in the stocks, to be pelted
This is Prohibition in all but name. At least Prohibition was
honest and unequivocal. The crusade against tobacco attempts instead
to make life so miserable for smokers that we will all eventually
give up ‘of our own accord.' But tobacco can't be ‘un-invented,'
and there will always be many people who enjoy it. Smokers are
not going to go away. If tobacco were prohibited by law, you'd
have all sorts of other problems - illegal trafficking, etc. Besides,
there isn't a government in the world which wants to give up the
enormous tax revenues they get from tobacco. Sooner or later, the
pendulum will have to swing back towards accomodating smokers by
a sensible mix of free choice, tolerance, and technology. And the
best venues for smoking will always be well-ventilated pubs, clubs,
bars, and restaurants (or at least some restaurants or parts of
restaurants). At the same time, if there's a genuine demand for
more completely nonsmoking venues, the free market will sort it
(4) A NOTE ABOUT AIR-CLEANING
The great irony of so much of the debate over smoking bans is
that there is no longer any excuse for a smoky environment anyway,
since modern air-cleaning systems can continually suck out smoke
(along with less visible pollutants, allergens etc.) and recirculate
fresh air. This fact is regularly buried by antismokers and suspiciously
absent from media debate. Antismokers like to present a stark choice:
(a) noxious, choking clouds or (b) nice clean air. But good air-cleaning
systems are widely available, and the best can make the air in
a smoking venue noticeably cleaner than filthy city air outside .
Tobacco smoke particles have been measured at about 1 micron; a
good system can remove everything down to .30 of a micron. Tests
have shown that the air in a smoking venue with a good air-cleaning
system is cleaner than the air in a nonsmoking venue without one.
In such an environment, smokers and nonsmokers can relax and socialise together. Sure,
you see a wisp of smoke here and there, but smoke buildup and haze
are eliminated. There is nowhere near enough smoke to make you
cough or hurt your eyes, and the smell is almost - or with the
best systems, completely - eliminated. It's not even very difficult
to create ‘air curtains' to completely prevent smoke passing from
one part of a room to another (in front of the bar, for instance).
In my opinion, the availability of this technology in so-called ‘public'
places also reinforces the argument that it's the bar or club,
rather than the home, which is the last refuge of the smoker.
Antismokers always claim that no air-cleaning system is ‘good
enough'. James Repace, a professional antismoking activist in the
US, recently stated that it would take ‘hurricane force winds'
to rid a bar of smoke. This should surprise anyone who has ever
managed to clear most of it just by opening a window. Anyway, it's
simply not true. Fairly standard air-cleaning systems are considered ‘good
enough' for laboratories working with toxic chemicals, and for
hospital infectious disease wards; I can't imagine why they're
not good enough for a bar.
With proper technology, ‘secondhand smoke' - even if it was a
proven hazard - is reduced to levels that it's childish to worry
about. Only the most fanatical, ideologically-driven antismokers
have a problem with such an environment. But these are the people
currently being allowed to set the agenda.
(5) HEALTH ,
POLITICS OR PROFIT?
Free choice and air-cleaning are important issues. But the central
problem is really the unchecked spread of polticised ‘junk
science', and the fact that health lobbies are increasingly allowed
to be the final authority on matters of public policy. The
British government is proposing to tax fatty foods and dairy products
and force people to exercise; the French government is proposing
to fine bar owners for serving more than a specific amount of alcohol
to customers; and the Italian government has passed a law to restrict
the amount of sugar served in cafes, with fines for employees who
let anyone have an extra lump! H ealth authorities are being given
sweeping powers which often transcend constitutional law. Bloomberg's
health inspectors have powers to enter and search which exceed
those of the police. They have, among other things, raided private
offices and fined people for the crime of Being In Possession Of
Meanwhile the media are happy to spread any scare if it makes
for a good headline (recently we've been told that we can get cancer
from hair dye, antibiotics, soft drinks and even oral sex!) The
curious result of all this is that although we're living longer,
healthier lives than ever, we are, at the same time, turning into
paranoid hypochondriacs! And although this phenomenon is not limited
to smoking, smoking seems to be at the top of the agenda at the
moment. And the agenda is being set by zealots and supported by
two huge financial pillars: government and the pharmaceutical industry.
The more I investigate the ‘tobacco wars,' the more obvious it
becomes that this is not so much a health issue as a political
one. The much-demonised tobacco companies made some big mistakes
in the 1960s-1980s and fell out of favour. The whole story is a
bit beyond the scope of this essay, but briefly, they reacted to
revelations that smoking was riskier than previously believed by
going into ‘denial mode', which then enabled their opponents to
inflate the dangers of smoking more and more. Then came the lawsuits,
and they started to go from denial to capitulation. They are now
widely banned from advertising and in the US , since 1998, even
banned from presenting any evidence which would contradict the
anti-smoking orthodoxy (in exchange for immunity from further lawsuits).
Antismokers keep portraying the tobacco industry as an insidiously
influential ‘evil empire,' and anyone who's even remotely pro-smoking
as a tobacco industry stooge. But in reality, that industry has
been largely silenced. Tobacco companies are mostly keeping quiet
and contenting themselves with expanding markets in China, Eastern
Europe, etc. Many smokers are angry at tobacco companies for ‘selling
us out'. The Philip Morris website, for instance, should get some
kind of award for corporate masochism; looking at it, I thought
I'd wandered into an antismoking website by mistake. But they're
saying what they have to say in order to stay in business. I agree
with antismokers that a corporation like Philip Morris is fundamentally
cynical and concerned with making money, rather than health or
any kind of moral principle. What I don't see, though, is how this
makes them any different to McDonalds, or Coca Cola, or GlaxoSmithKline,
or Enron, or Halliburton.
Lo and behold, since 1998 we've seen a huge increase in unopposed antismoking
propaganda, and also in advertising for ‘smoking replacement' products:
the nicotine patch, gum, etc. And it doesn't take a lot of digging
to discover that big pharmaceutical companies are the biggest contributors
to the antismoking crusade. The Robert Wood Johnson (of Johnson & Johnson)
Foundation alone has contributed over half a billion dollars to
antismoking campaigns, including even many small ‘grass-roots'
ones which lobby legislators. They and other drug companies reap
the benefits by selling ‘politically correct' nicotine. Typically,
though, these products don't work very well, and smokers go on
and off them, sometimes for years, spending a lot of money in the
process. Eventually, many do quit smoking, but they feel depressed;
they've been deprived of a favourite pleasure, and one which has
antidepressant qualities. So, what's next? Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft
. . .
Ex-smokers are a potentially colossal worldwide market
for the pharmaceutical industry. (A small but telling example:
Mayor Bloomberg, after pushing through his smoking ban, bought,
with city money, over a million dollars' worth of nicotine patches
to give away to prospective quitters!) Behind all the ‘public health'
rhetoric is a high-stakes corporate battle for the future control
of nicotine, and the pharmaceutical industry currently has the
edge. This strikes some people who haven't thought about it as
a ‘conspiracy theory.' Well, I don't generally believe in conspiracies;
I think human beings are not usually smart enough to sustain them.
But I do believe that alliances of interest can arise, and gather
a momentum which can, on the surface, look like genuine or necessary
social change - at least for a while. This is what has arisen around
‘Big Pharma' also gives generously to local governments which
take an antismoking stance, and advocacy groups (various heart
or lung associations or antismoking groups such as AS H ) seem able
to get endless amounts of money for antismoking campaigns from
politicians who see ‘public health' as a good bet, and who don't
question the antismoking agenda. The more such groups exaggerate
the danger of whatever they're crusading against, the more money
they get. AS H , in particular, get millions of government pounds
to say and do anything they like, including blatantly false propaganda,
so long as it's antismoking. The British government is also giving
cash incentives to doctors to get their patients to quit. H ard
though it may be to accept, the antismoking lobby is not ‘unbiased,'
nor free of vested interests. There is now an anti-smoking industry, and
it's no wonder they're on a roll. The right lawsuit - based on
the overwhelming evidence that ‘secondhand smoke' is a fraud -
could bring the whole thing crashing down in flames. But under
American law, at least, it's very difficult for bar owners, for
instance, to challenge smoking bans on the basis of junk science,
since they do not have ‘standing' on that issue.
. The anti-smoking lobby has become a speeding juggernaut with
no brakes. Some doctors and polticians have even suggested that
smokers who get sick should be refused treatment, because their
diseases are ‘self-inflicted' and they are a ‘burden' on health
services. Think about this for a moment. These are the same people
who tell us that smokers die younger. If that's so, we are saving the
state money. Besides, just about every health problem you can think
of could be said to be self-inflicted; and yet smokers contribute
more in taxes than anyone. In the UK this amounts to £7 billion
per year; around a quarter of the cost of the National H ealth
Service! Since only a minority of smokers get sick - and since,
cynically speaking, lung cancer is a ‘cheap' cancer, with most
victims dead within a few months - we are not a burden but a benefit .
But more and more outrageous lies are simply repeated as though
they were facts. As H itler's Minister of Propaganda, H err Goebbels,
famously said: a lie, when repeated often enough, becomes the truth.
(The reference is not gratuitous: the Nazis were fierce antismokers,
and today's ‘antis' use a lot of the same tactics and rhetoric).
(6) ‘SCAPEGOATS DU JOUR': SMOKING, CULTURE AND FAS H ION
I've already alluded to the abuse to which smokers are subjected
these days, but as any smoker will know, I've barely scratched
the surface. In fact, the sheer nastiness of much antismoking rhetoric
and policy is one of the things which has always made me suspicious.
There are many much bigger problems which are not attacked with
anywhere near the same quasi-religious zeal. Alcohol causes enormous
damage, not just to the drinker but to others, in all kinds of
ways which are much more apparent than the alleged effects of ‘secondhand
smoke'. And yet, in the boozy culture of Britain, at least, drunken
excess is often excused with a smile and a wink. AIDS is a huge
problem which can certainly be ‘self-inflicted' or knowingly spread,
but sufferers are treated with great deference. Air pollution is
a huge problem, yet people are not abused for driving cars (although
some people are now attacking drivers of SUVs in a way which reminds
me of the scapegoating of smokers).
Obesity and the ill-effects of junk food look like being next
on the health crusaders' list. The British government has started
talking about an ‘epidemic' of obesity,
which makes me suspicious, since I know that ‘epidemics' can be created for
political reasons, just by modifying the way you do your statistics.
Nevertheless we don't hear vicious abuse heaped onto people with
bad diets, or the media calling them ‘filthy burger-eaters', etc.
It is not considered acceptable to call people ‘fat,' or for that
matter to say that Indians smell of curry, or Italians of garlic,
and yet it's now quite acceptable to say that ‘smokers stink',
smoking is a ‘filthy habit,' and so on. And people who rant and
rave about smokers in this fashion seem to be blissfully unaware
that they're insulting millions of their fellow citizens.
The ‘smoking is filthy' myth is one that, as someone who likes
to be clean and well-groomed, I've always taken exception to. The
aesthetics of smoking are surely completely subjective (you don't
like smoke, I don't like dogs, what's the big deal?) Where is the ‘filth,'
exactly? Sure, an overflowing ashtray isn't particularly nice.
But cigarette ends and ash are garbage, and as such are
meant to be disposed of as quickly as possible, along with the
chicken bones, fish heads, wine dregs, and so on.
To those who claim that fashion has nothing to do with all this,
I like to quote a 1947 survey by noted psychologist turned ad consultant
Ernst Dichter which showed that the vast majority of nonsmokers loved the
smell of smoke. Of course, there have always been people who hate
it. What's new is that they have become empowered, and incited
to new heights of self-righteousness, by modern ‘healthist' trends,
junk science, and an overzealous desire to appear ‘clean' and ‘progressive'.
Smokers are now the only minority who are not only abused, but
whose minority status is quoted as justification for
abuse. In politically-correct Britain , we mustn't be nasty to
Muslims or gay people, even though they are reckoned to comprise
only about 3% and 5% of the population respectively. Meanwhile
smokers, as already noted, are more than a quarter! Despite howls
of protest from antismokers who are (or claim to be) motivated
only by health concerns, I have to say that the disproportionate
abuse of smokers can only be explained by some other motive: a
sour and punitive Puritanism, or a lurking desire in society to
have some minority to beat up on, and feel superior to,
now that all other minorities seem to be off-limits.
Take the increasing restrictions on smoking outdoors. Los
Angeles has the worst air quality in the US : a recent report by
the American Lung Association blames it for lung cancer, heart
disease, asthma, and death (wait a minute, aren't those all caused
by smoking?!) LA weather forecasts include a Smog Index, and the
moon at night often appears a dirty brown colour. And yet LA is
banning, or has banned, smoking in parks and on beaches and boardwalks.
(Incidentally, LA also has America's highest murder rate, but doesn't
The New York smoking ban extends to 75% of a restaurant or
bar's outside space, to be separated from the outdoor smoking
section by a specified distance . (These are the same people
who tell us that even a separate smoking room inside is unacceptable
because smoke can drift!) Of course, few New York establishments
have enough outdoor space to strictly comply with the law, so
they can't allow outdoor smoking at all. The message here seems
to be: traffic fumes, screeching bus brakes, reeking garbage
trucks, boomboxes, dogs, panhandlers and God knows what else
are all acceptable accompaniments to a New Yorker's al fresco
dinner - but not an occasional whiff of tobacco smoke. And what
about office buildings which, after banning smoking inside, put
notices by the doors saying NO SMOKING WIT H IN 9 FEET OF T H
IS ENTRANCE? Why not an ashtray and somewhere to sit?
Smokers these days are united by tales of woe, and I've heard
some real horror stories, including examples of physical assult.
The reaction to my NY Times piece has been mostly positive, but
I've also been subjected to some vicious, gratuitously personal
attacks. I probably shouldn't be surprised. Even the dead are not
exempt from abuse. When Leonard Bernstein (a heavy smoker) died
of cancer, aged 74, he was taken to task in the NY Times for depriving
the musical world of a few more years of his presence. H ad he
died at 74 and been a nonsmoker, no one would have batted an eyelid.
Would he have lived a few more years if he hadn't smoked? Who knows?
Besides, it was his choice, wasn't it? Anyway, the chainsmoking
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was similarly excoriated as a ‘bad
example to youth' when he died at the age of 92!
I do believe that some antismokers are well-intentioned, and that
others are misled by activists with a more cynical agenda. H owever,
many antismokers are just plain Nagging Nannies, or people who
like having a politically-correct cause to put some energy into,
or people who can't bear to see other people indulging in risky
pleasures and apparently getting away with it. Ex-smokers (like
Mayor Bloomberg) are often the worst. When they say that giving
up has made them unpleasantly sensitive to smoke, they have my
sympathy; when they insist that therefore the law should ban smoking
everywhere so as to guarantee their own personal comfort, they
do not. I also believe that many of them are bitter and resentful
at being deprived of a favourite pleasure, and that their bitterness
is vented at people who have the nerve to carry right on doing
it. (Actually, since the number of smokers has greatly declined
in recent years, ‘ex-smoker syndrome' may have more to do with
the current antismoking mania than we usually realise).
Whatever your personal feelings about tobacco, it should be apparent
to any thinking person that something has gotten way out of hand
here. If nothing else, it's ripe for some major sociological study.
(7) WHAT CAN BE DONE?
This essay is not just one man's cranky vendetta. The truth is
out there, and there are many people speaking out, even if their
voices are, at the moment, largely being drowned out by the anti-smoking
juggernaut. For more facts and figures, go to www.davehitt.com/facts,
or www.junkscience.com, or especially FORCES
International (www.forces.org) a non-profit network of volunteers (including many reputable academics
and scientists) fighting the spread of politicised junk science
in the US, Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands. In the UK ,FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) are
the leading opposition group (www.forestonline.org). In New York,
CLASH (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker H arrassment: www.nycclash.com) have tons of info on their site, and are also specifically
fighting the NY smoking ban, as are the New
York Nightlife Association (www.nyna.com). All of these groups, incidentally, desperately
need support and money! Only FOREST gets any funding from
the tobacco industry (and not as much as you might think). For
info on air-cleaning systems, check out Tornex
Improves Results (www.airinitiative.com). I also
recommend the following books, which you can probably find online
rather than your local bookstore: FOR YOUR OWN GOOD by Jacob Sullum;
SLOW BURN by Don Oakley; MURDER A CIGARETTE by Ralph H arris and
Judith H atton; SCIENCE WIT H OUT SENSE and JUNK SCIENCE JUDO by
Stephen Milloy; DISSECTING ANTISMOKERS' BRAINS by Michael J. McFadden;
and W H AT RISK? - SCIENCE, POLITICS AND PUBLIC H EALT H , edited
by Roger Bate.
If you, who are reading this, are able in any way to speak out
against corrupt science and smoking bans, I urge you to do so.
Contact the above groups, contact politicians, write to newspapers.
H elp turn back this tide, before the ‘healthists' win this one
and then move on to something else. I personally have no political
axe to grind, I'm just a citizen who has investigated this issue
and feels strongly about it.
Thanks for listening.
This essay is copyrighted and cannot be changed
or quoted in print without attribution to the author. However,
it can be freely downloaded, copied and circulated.
© Joe Jackson, 2004