Top Ten Myths of the Anti-Smoking Movement


The news media have long portrayed the tobacco controversy as a struggle between greedy merchants of death and selfless defenders of the public health. Last month's capitulation by the tobacco industry left the ground for debate narrower than ever, excluding anyone who thinks smoking is a matter of individual choice in which the government has no business meddling. All the arguments about whether the nationwide settlement agreement went far enough helped conceal the true nature of the anti-smoking movement, which is an attempt by one group of people to impose their tastes and preferences on another. Tobacco's opponents try to hide their paternalism with a series of familiar myths that the industry's concessions reinforced:

The tobacco companies hid the truth about the hazards of cigarettes from the American public. Industry double-talk notwithstanding, warnings about the health risks of smoking go back hundreds of years. James I, in his 1604 Counterblaste to Tobacco, called smoking "a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse." Persuasive scientific evidence of tobacco's hazards, which began to emerge in the early 1930s, has received widespread attention since the '50s.

The tobacco companies concealed the addictiveness of cigarettes. The difficulty of giving up the tobacco habit has been common knowledge for centuries. James I's lord chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon, observed, "In our times the use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom." The 17th-century polemicist Johann Michael Moscherosch called smokers "thralls to the tobacco fiend," while Cotton Mather dubbed them "Slave[s] to the Pipe." Fagon, Louis XIV's court physician, described the tobacco habit as "a fatal, insatiable necessity—permanent epilepsy."

People smoke because of advertising. There is remarkably little evidence that advertising plays an important role in getting people to smoke, as opposed to getting them to smoke a particular brand. The 1989 surgeon general's report conceded that "[t]here is no scientifically rigorous study available to the public that provides a definitive answer to the basic question of whether advertising and promotion increase the level of tobacco consumption." Given the complexity of the issue, none is likely to be forthcoming in the forseeable future. The 1994 report, which focused on underage smoking, also acknowledged the "lack of definitive literature." None of the widely publicized studies that have appeared in recent years, including the much-hyped research on Joe Camel, actually measured the impact of advertising on a teenager's propensity to smoke.

Smoking imposes costs on society. Because smokers tend to die earlier than nonsmokers, the short-term costs of treating tobacco-related illness are balanced, and probably outweighed, by savings on Social Security, nursing home stays, and medical care in old age. Every analysis that takes such long-term savings into account concludes that "social cost" cannot justify raising cigarette taxes—which is essentially what the huge fine paid by the tobacco companies will do, once it's passed on to their customers.

States have a right to demand compensation from tobacco companies for the costs of treating smoking-related diseases under Medicaid. This claim ignores the long-term savings traceable to smoking and the tobacco taxes smokers already pay to cover the costs they supposedly impose on others. And by the same logic, states could sue the manufacturer of any product associated with disease or injury, including alcoholic beverages, fatty foods, candy, firearms, swimming pools, bathtubs, skateboards, and automobiles. The makers (and consumers) of such products should not be blamed because politicians decided to pay for health care with taxpayers' money.

Secondhand smoke poses a grave threat to bystanders. The evidence concerning the health effects of secondhand smoke is not nearly as conclusive as the evidence concerning the health effects of smoking. The research suggests that people who live with smokers for decades may face a slightly higher risk of lung cancer. According to one estimate, a nonsmoking woman who lives with a smoker faces an additional lung cancer risk of 6.5 in 10,000, which would raise her lifetime risk from about 0.34 percent to about 0.41 percent. Studies of ETS and heart disease, including the recently published results from the Harvard Nurses Study, report more-dramatic increases in disease rates—so dramatic, in fact, that they are biologically implausible, suggesting risks comparable to those faced by smokers, despite the much lower doses involved. In any case, there is no evidence that casual exposure to secondhand smoke has any impact on your life expectancy.

If secondhand smoke really is dangerous, smoking ought to be banned everywhere, except in private residences. Since almost all of the epidemiological evidence about the health effects of ETS relates to long-term exposure in the home, the fact that this is the one place exempted from current and proposed smoking bans suggests a residual concern for property rights. Yet business owners have property rights, too. If the government respected their right to establish rules about smoking on their own property, potential employees and customers could take such policies into account when deciding where to work or which businesses to patronize. Whether secondhand smoke is a health hazard or merely a nuisance, such a voluntary system is the most appropriate way to deal with the conflicting demands of smokers and nonsmokers. It allows for diversity and competition, rather than simply imposing the will of the majority on everyone, as the federal ban endorsed by the proposed settlement would do.

The tobacco companies have been secretly manipulating the nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers hooked. Nicotine control was never a secret. Several brands of denicotined cigarettes were introduced as early as the 1920s. Claims of reduced tar and nicotine have been conspicuous since the 1950s, and the yields of each brand have been advertised since 1971. The very idea of a consistent nicotine yield for a given brand implies control, which cigarette manufacturers achieve through a variety of methods that have long been discussed in trade journals, books, and government reports.

Smoking is "a pediatric disease." Although most smokers start as teenagers, the vast majority are, in fact, adults. And while it raises the risk of certain illnesses, smoking itself is a behavior "something people choose to do" not a disease. As then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop noted in his 1984 speech calling for "a smoke-free society," smoking is a voluntary act: one does not have to smoke if one does not want to.

Once people have started smoking, nicotine addiction prevents them from stopping. This is so contrary to everyday experience that it's amazing politicians and anti-smoking activists can say it with a straight face. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about as many former smokers in this country as there are smokers, and almost all gave up the habit on their own, without formal treatment—usually by quitting cold turkey.

Even while helping to perpetuate these myths, the tobacco companies did not concede the two things about smoking that everyone knows but the industry has always questioned or denied: that it's hazardous and addictive. Unlike the Liggett Group, which in its separate settlement announced last March explicitly affirmed these points, the other companies only acknowledged the opinions of "public health authorities" and agreed to new warning labels (saying, among other things, that "Cigarettes are addictive" and "smoking can kill you"). Perhaps it doesn't matter that the merchants of death did not exactly come clean. No one really believed them, anyway. But if that's the case, it's hard to see how there was any merit to the multitude of lawsuits that brought the industry to the bargaining table in the first place.