Where There's Smoke, There's Fire…and Mirrors, Screens, and Air in Need of Clearing

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I just left a conference in New York called "Up in Smoke: Tobacco and American Youth," sponsored by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). The main speakers were CASA President Joe Califano; Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; and Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, the anti-smoking organization funded by the Master Settlement Agreement that settled state litigation against the leading tobacco companies (which is to say, funded by smokers forced to pay higher cigarette prices as a result of a government-backed cigarette cartel). The panels were "Where There's Smoke, There's Fire: Tobacco, the Abuse of Other Substances and Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders"; "Smoke and Mirrors: Advertising and Tobacco"; "Smoke Screen: Smoking in Films and Television"; and "Clearing the Air: Tobacco Policy and Youth." Almost all of the panelists and moderators were either active participants in the anti-smoking movement or strongly sympathetic to it. The audience of 150 or so seemed to consist mainly of anti-smoking activists, public health officials, addiction treatment specialists, and academic critics of the tobacco industry. I was there for balance.

I was a little surprised to be invited, since I have often criticized CASA for its alarmist reports on drug use, calling it a "prohibitionist propaganda mill" on more than one occasion. But apparently a Philip Morris executive backed out of the conference the week before last, and CASA was scrambling to find someone (in addition to Villanova University marketing professor Charles Taylor) willing to challenge the belief that tobacco advertising is an important reason why people smoke. It's to CASA's credit that it recognized this issue remains highly controversial among scholars in the field, even though anti-smoking activists tend to assume it was resolved long ago. (The empirical question is the extent to which advertising boosts overall cigarette consumption, as opposed to winning or defending market share for particular brands.) CASA showed a similar openness on the issue of smoking in popular entertainment, inviting former MPAA head Jack Valenti to defend Hollywood against the charge of hooking kids on cigarettes.

But judging from the conference's composition, these are pretty much the only smoking-related areas where CASA concedes there is room for legitimate debate. So when Volkow asserted that once you're addicted to nicotine, smoking is "no longer voluntary behavior," no one on her panel challenged that assertion. And when Healton, during the advertising panel, declared in passing that the health risks of secondhand smoke mean that smoking must be confined to the company of "consenting adults" (a category that evidently does not include adults who choose to enter bars or restaurants that allow smoking), I was too busy rebutting her advertising-related claims to get into an argument over smoking bans. (If smoking is involuntary, though, it hardly seems fair to demand that people stop doing it outside their homes.)

Still, I was encouraged that CASA was willing to allow even a little debate. It clearly was too much for some members of the audience. One of them insinuated that Taylor and I must be in the pay of the tobacco industry, while another seemed to blame us for his parents' deaths from lung cancer (or maybe it was emphysema). And there was the predictable, tedious invocation of the 1,200-deaths-a-day estimate, a rhetorical tic that was ripe for satire back when Christopher Buckley wrote Thank You for Smoking but that is still offered (by Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, among others) as if it were a conclusive argument for Immediate Action to eliminate smoking once and for all. At the same time, I was surprised to see several heads nodding in agreement as I argued that, whatever the effects of tobacco advertising, the proper response to offensive, possibly pernicious speech is more speech, not forcible suppression.

The people I spoke with at the conference (including James Sargent, whose research on smoking in the movies I've criticized), generally were cordial and willing to calmly discuss smoking-related scientific issues—a welcome contrast to most of my previous encounters with anti-smoking activists. Of course, I don't know what they said after I left to catch my plane.

NEXT: Because Tim McVeigh didn't do enough for the "movement"

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  1. Best of the Web quoted another part of this story on Tuesday.

    “Rudolph complained in a letter to his mother about “born-again Christians looking to save my soul”:

    “I suppose the assumption is made that because I’m in here I must be a ‘sinner’ in need of salvation, and they would be glad to sell me a ticket to heaven, hawking this salvation like peanuts at a ballgame. I do appreciate their charity, but I could really do without the condescension. They have been so nice I would hate to break it to them that I really prefer Nietzsche to the Bible.”

    I would hope this puts an end to the “Christians are just as dangerous as Muslims look at Eric Rudolph and Tim McVey” argument that is often seen on these threads. McVey was an confirmed athiest as well.

  2. I do not smoke, but I would rather not force my viewpoints on anyone.Forcible suppression of anything makes everything a bit worse not better.

  3. I think most of the Christian vs. Muslim danger argument are viewed with respect to the last 2000 years.

    But, Bush belives he’s doing Gods work. Justification is often in the eye of the beholder and should not be considered in the one vs. other dangerous debate because both sides feel justified. Justifiable violence is still violence.

    I will say the sectarian violence in Iraq, helps keep your stance true. Regardless of how much violence we have brought against 2 Muslim nations. Muslim vs. Muslim violence is beating it all by a long shot.

    Of course one could argue that the one with the most nuclear bombs IS the most dangerous. But, I’m playing devils advocate, just to get that smooth sulfur smell. aaaahhhhhhhhhh.

  4. Am I on the wrong thread?

    I wanted to write in to say Califano is an asshole who does shitty science and sucks his salary off the public teat.

    taptaptap – Is this thing on?

  5. Glad that Mr. Sullum’s jaw wasn’t too tired and that he was able to engage the health and lifestyle police in debate ; )

  6. With all the money these guys took from big tobacco, I bet the forum was held in some very nice digs. No rubber chicken for these jackpotters.

  7. Jacob Sullum:

    Of course, I don’t know what they said after I left to catch my plane.

    They hung pictures of you up with fake moustaches drawn on them. They laughed until it hurt. Oh how the long winter evenings fly by at an anti-smoking activist’s get-together.

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