The Rise of the Anti-Smoking Religion
Over the past year, reports that neutrinos might travel faster than the speed of light made international headlines. If this phenomenon had been confirmed, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which had survived 100 years of rigorous testing, would have been undermined. Exceptions are important in science, often more important than the rule.
Exceptions are also important in business. If one percent of Toyota’s cars were to suddenly accelerate for no apparent reason, it would result in an international recall. If one airplane in a million falls out of the sky, vast resources are mobilized to understand the cause.
Why, then, is the same scientific curiosity not applied to smoking? Why instead are governments colluding with the medical community in a program of moral and scientific propaganda that would not be tolerated in any other area of public policy?
Let me offer myself as a case study. I have smoked over half a million cigarettes in my lifetime. I have also been exposed to very high levels of second-hand smoke for more than 50 years. I do not now (or have I ever had) smoking-related health problems.
I began smoking before I was born. My mother smoked (and drank) throughout her entire pregnancy. Both my parents (and their friends) smoked in the house during my childhood. I began smoking at the age of 12 (stealing my parents’ cigarettes). I started buying my own cigarettes at the age of 14. During my 20s, I smoked about 20 a day; during my 30s, 40 a day; during my 40s, 60 a day. Now, at the age of 59, I smoke 40g of strong, hand-roll tobacco per day (equivalent to 60+ regular cigarettes).
Regarding second-hand smoke, I breathed it at home, at high school dances, in university classrooms, at my desk in government jobs, in bank queues, shopping centers, buses, cars, trains, airplanes, cinemas, pool halls, bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. Moreover, since I was a smoker, I preferred the company of other smokers. I didn’t avoid other people’s smoke; I gravitated toward it.
After 40 years of heavy smoking and breathing other people’s smoke, I have a full head of hair, perfect eyesight for my age, healthy teeth and gums, normal blood pressure, no allergies, a clean complexion and healthy skin. I take no medication and I’m fully functional in terms of male potency.
How can this be? Look at any cigarette package to find gruesome photographs of baldness, blindness, rotting teeth, cadaverous skin, limp dicks, blackened lungs, bloody throats and dead babies. All of this is presented as incontrovertible fact, as an absolute and inevitable consequence of smoking. Let’s call it by its real name: propaganda.
Some go so far as to claim that 50 percent of smokers die as a consequence of smoking. If so, then 50 percent don’t die as a consequence of smoking. Obviously, the statement "smoking kills" is (at most) only half true, which means it’s (at least) half false, which means it is just plain wrong. People die from alcohol too. Does anyone claim "alcohol kills" or "driving kills" or "mountaineering kills"? When did ‘some’ become ‘all’? No self-respecting scientist would make such a mistake.
Can smoking affect health? Yes, but it has not harmed my health – even after 40 years of extremely high exposure to direct (active) and indirect (passive) tobacco smoke. Will it affect my health in the future? Who knows? The real question – the interesting question – is why it hasn't affected my health in the past. If smoking is so dangerous as to be banned outdoors on the beach, then I should have died a horrible death 30 years ago. What factors other than smoking affect health? The medical community doesn’t say. Instead, it pursues a single-factor agenda to persuade governments that smoking is ‘evil’.
Such scientific dishonesty is worse than tobacco advertising because, unlike tobacco companies, governments and doctors have a public duty to tell the truth. The truth is that there are risks associated with smoking, but the causal relationship is not fully understood. A propaganda campaign based on exaggerated claims of baldness, rotting teeth, bloody throats and certain death is a deliberate and irresponsible lie.
Lying to the public in the name of public safety is not only unethical, it’s counterproductive. Reefer Madness, a 1936 propaganda film against marijuana, has become a classic joke. Government credibility in the ‘war on drugs’ falls daily with each fresh pile of corpses. Various overreactions to suspected outbreaks of disease have dulled the public mind. Exaggeration, propaganda, crying wolf; these undermine public safety far more than any supposed gain from a ‘war on lifestyle’. Moreover, to eliminate risk from human affairs, to reduce human beings to mere statistics, to formulate public policy via spreadsheet, is to emasculate the human race. Do we really want to transform human society into a sterile, sanitized, termite colony governed by medical monarchs in a nanny state?
A decade of forgotten and/or airbrushed history
1994-06-03 Send regulations up in smoke (reprinted as "Second-Hand Smoke" in Getting it Right: Markets and Choices in a Free Economy. MIT Press, 1996): "Despite the recent assertions by the EPA, the statistical evidence for health risks from secondhand smoke is extremely weak, even by the standards of an empirical economist…. The final recourse is to admit that the scientific evidence on the health hazards of secondhand smoke is flimsy, but to point out – correctly – that this evidence does not conclusively rule out a small effect."
1997-10-19 Cancer alert on passive smoking is ‘false alarm’ (no longer available on The Telegraph website)
1997-12-18 Blowing smoke "Tobacco is not, properly speaking, a social problem at all, but the growing anti-smoking movement is quickly becoming one."
1998-03-08 Passive smoking doesn’t cause cancer – official (no longer available on The Telegraph website) Here is the text by health correspondent Victoria Macdonald:
THE world’s leading health organisation has withheld from publication a study which shows that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer but that it could even have a protective effect.
The astounding results are set to throw wide open the debate on passive smoking health risks. The World Health Organisation, which commissioned the 12-centre, seven-country European study has failed to make the findings public, and has instead produced only a summary of the results in an internal report.
Despite repeated approaches, nobody at the WHO headquarters in Geneva would comment on the findings last week. At its International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, which coordinated the study, a spokesman would say only that the full report had been submitted to a science journal and no publication date had been set.
The findings are certain to be an embarrassment to the WHO, which has spent years and vast sums on anti-smoking and anti-tobacco campaigns. The study is one of the largest ever to look at the link between passive smoking – or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) – and lung cancer, and had been eagerly awaited by medical experts and campaigning groups.
Yet the scientists have found that there was no statistical evidence that passive smoking caused lung cancer. The research compared 650 lung cancer patients with 1,542 healthy people. It looked at people who were married to smokers, worked with smokers, both worked and were married to smokers, and those who grew up with smokers.
The results are consistent with their being no additional risk for a person living or working with a smoker and could be consistent with passive smoke having a protective effect against lung cancer. The summary, seen by The Telegraph, also states: "There was no association between lung cancer risk and ETS exposure during childhood."
A spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health said the findings "seem rather surprising given the evidence from other major reviews on the subject which have shown a clear association between passive smoking and a number of diseases." Roy Castle, the jazz musician and television presenter who died from lung cancer in 1994, claimed that he contracted the disease from years of inhaling smoke while performing in pubs and clubs.
A report published in the British Medical Journal last October was hailed by the anti-tobacco lobby as definitive proof when it claimed that non-smokers living with smokers had a 25 per cent risk of developing lung cancer. But yesterday, Dr Chris Proctor, head of science for BAT Industries, the tobacco group, said the findings had to be taken seriously. "If this study cannot find any statistically valid risk you have to ask if there can be any risk at all."
"It confirms what we and many other scientists have long believed, that while smoking in public may be annoying to some non-smokers, the science does not show that being around a smoker is a lung-cancer risk." The WHO study results come at a time when the British Government has made clear its intention to crack down on smoking in thousands of public places, including bars and restaurants.
The Government’s own Scientific Committee on Smoking and Health is also expected to report shortly – possibly in time for this Wednesday’s National No Smoking day – on the hazards of passive smoking.
1998-03-12 Smokescreens "The World Health Organisation is showing signs of allowing politics to get in the way of the truth."
1998-03-13 Smoking out the good guys (London Evening Standard). My own response to the WHO report:
How fascinating that within days of the World Health Organisation (WHO) releasing a one-page summary of a 200-page, 10-year, 12-centre, seven-country study suggesting that there is little or no relationship between passive smoking and health, a British government-funded committee of doctors goes on the air with their own counter-study.
Why was the full WHO study not published immediately? The WHO answers that the findings of the study will be published someday in some unnamed scientific journal. Perhaps this is their normal publishing procedure. But by not publishing its report immediately, the WHO has not only suppressed information running counter to its political agenda, but has given the initiative to every anti-smoking group in town to hit the media with its spin doctors.
I listened as the World At One took on Peter Mandelson, spin doctor extraordinaire, and gave as good as it got. But where was the mention of the WHO report? Where were the hard questions about the legitimacy of a government-sponsored committee of doctors doing research into passive smoking?
If a tobacco company produces a report about smoking, the media and the government dismiss it because of ‘vested interest’. But did it ever occur to anyone that the medical community might have a vested interest in the smoking debate?
1998-03-15 Behind the smokescreen (no longer available on The Sunday Telegraph website) "And the bad news for those hailing the WHO results as proof-positive of a cancer link with passive smoking is that the study's own confidence interval of 0.93 to 1.44 includes a relative risk of 1 - that is, no extra risk."
1998-10-07 Multicenter case-control study of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer in Europe "Our results indicate no association between childhood exposure to ETS and lung cancer risk. We did find weak evidence of a dose-response relationship between risk of lung cancer and exposure to spousal and workplace ETS. There was no detectable risk after cessation of exposure."
1998-10-11 Study fails to link passive smoking with cancer (no longer available on The Telegraph website)
1999-11-04 Rout of the new evil empire "With the release on November 5th of Michael Mann’s new film, ‘The Insider’, big tobacco takes yet another step towards filling the place once occupied by the Soviet Union."
2000-02-11 Cancer risk from passive smoking ‘less than feared’ (no longer available on The Telegraph website)
2000-07-20 Blowing smoke "Americans’ obsession with punishing tobacco firms is wrong-headed, and an obstacle to rational debate about illegal drugs."
2000-10-12 The tobacco war goes global "The World Health Organisation is trying to organise an international campaign against the demon weed."
After ten years of aggressive, government-sponsored anti-tobacco advertising, most people no longer question the data. Tobacco has been successfully demonized. Next on the agenda are alcohol, softdrinks, sugar (including a delightful propaganda piece on meat). Meanwhile, "Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last year at the age of 96, was known to everyone as Paddy…. Despite smoking 80 to 100 cigarettes a day and drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol, he remained remarkably fit. At the age of 69 he emulated Byron and swam the Hellespont in Turkey."
What is the truth?
As the consultant psychologist and human-factors engineer for the Canadian Department of Health and Welfare in the 1970s, my father was commissioned to conduct a study into the effects of smoking on health. The results of the study were encapsulated in the warning that was later printed on Canadian cigarette packages: "Danger to health increases with the amount smoked." This was an unbiased statement of scientific fact. The medical doctors on the committee were dissatisfied with this wording because, as my father told me privately, they wanted a more paternalistic approach. "We should scare the hell out of them," was their philosophy. My father won the battle, but 'scaring the hell out of them' won the war.
Subsequent research has confirmed that smoking can have a harmful effect on a smoker's health. This is not in dispute any more than drinking can have a harmful effect on a drinker's health or skiing on a skier's health (including Sonny Bono, Michael Kennedy and Michael Schumacher, not to mention avalanche victims). What's new is the moral component, which has mutated into a religious crusade against smoking. As shown in the history above, this crusade has corrupted the scientific evaluation of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and manifests itself today in bizarre regulations that have zero scientific merit and promote social opprobrium historically reserved for heretics, infidels and apostates.
Regarding the effects of ETS on health, the data is statistical in nature. The studies employ econometric and epidemiological analysis that is problematic and open to manipulation. For example, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have developed highly-complex econometric models, which seldom produce accurate economic forecasts. Epidemiological studies are helpful in establishing correlations (all the sick people drank from the same well) but much less effective at determining causation (why are they sick?). We are told that 75% of lung cancer patients are or were smokers, but not why 25% of smokers never develop lung cancer. Yet we know precisely how many milligrams of cyanide are required to kill a 200 lb man within X minutes. How many cigarettes, then, must a 200 lb man smoke to develop lung cancer within X years? Unknown. Now extend the problem to ETS. How many parts per million of cigarette smoke are required over time T to induce lung cancer in a 200 lb man within X years (presuming zero background environmental factors such as dust, radiation and air pollution)? The answer is unknown cubed. To speak with certainty about causes without a clear and proven causal chain is called dogmatism - anathema to the scientific mind, ambrosia to the bigot.
In addition to the loss of context and perspective of the anti-smoking crusaders (industrial pollution in Beijing dwarfs any negative effects of ETS; banning smoking in public places in Iraq is obscene when compared to the harmful effects of warfare) and the lack of a conclusive, negative causal mechanism of ETS on health, there exists a counter-intuitive possibility that ETS may have a positive effect on health. This was suggested in the 1998 WHO study in the form of a "beneficial effect" through a process called hormesis:
Research into the body’s mechanism for repairing damage within the cells suggests that low levels of potentially lethal forms of ‘stress’ result in a surge of mending activity with long-term benefits. Scientists believe the evidence overwhelmingly favours the heretical idea that people may benefit from small amounts of environmental toxins and radiation damage because they can make the body resistant to further harm.... In an article in the Journal of Gerontology, the scientific team from the Universities of Manchester in Britain and Colorado in America says: "These observations have tremendous implications for our continued desire to increase human life and health." (Steve Connor, science correspondent for the Sunday Times, 1997-03-02)
Largely dismissed at the time, research into hormesis has been revived by Nassim Taleb's concept of 'anti-fragile' and Moises Velasquez-Manoff's work on autoimmune diseases. A simple example is peanut butter allergies. In other words, smoking at home or in the car may be good for your kids in the same way it's good for them to play in the dirt. Excessive physical hygiene like excessive moral hygiene can be truly unhealthy.
2012-09-23 Switzerland rejects smoking ban
2015-01-02 Two thirds of cancers are simply bad luck
2015-11-24 A false alarm on red meat and cancer "Two large trials have tested for evidence and the WHO ignored both of them."
2017-02-13 Secondhand smoke isn't as bad as we thought "We use terrible science to justify smoking bans."
2017-09-04 The problem with the mutation-centric view of cancer "Smoking presents a huge increase in the risk of getting lung cancer. But only about 15 percent or less of smokers develop lung cancer. There’s probably a lot of individual differences whether it’s your genetics or other aspects of your lifestyle that could influence things."