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


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.