The November 10 issue of the British magazine New Scientist calls attention to the prevarications of anti-tobacco activists pushing ever-more-stringent smoking bans. A report and editorial highlight maverick anti-smoking activist Michael Siegel's debunking of claims that brief exposure to secondhand smoke has potentially deadly effects on the cardiovascular system. "It is certainly not correct to claim that a single 30-minute exposure to secondhand smoke causes hardening of the arteries, heart disease, heart attacks, or strokes," Siegel tells New Scientist. "The anti-smoking movement has gone overboard." The response from the prevaricators is telling:
"When you take the science and put it in the public domain you can't include all the caveats," says Stanton Glantz, a tobacco researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. "The messages have to be simplified so people can understand them."
Glantz is right, of course. If anti-smoking groups said regular exposure to secondhand smoke, continued for decades, might slightly increase your risk of heart disease (assuming that the weak associations found in epidemiological studies signify a causal relationship), that would be hard to understand. When they say the slightest whiff of secondhand smoke could kill you, that's easy to understand. The only problem is that it's not true.
But if people panic based on lies told by anti-smoking activists, whose fault is that? It's certainly not the liars' fault:
John Banzhaf, executive director of ASH (US), says their statement [that 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can raise a "non-smoker's risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker"] was lifted from a report by the US Centers for Disease Control, and though he admits the risk to the heart is transitory, he does not believe you have to spell this out explicitly. "It is such an obvious thing," he says.
I wish it were obvious to more people that activists like Glantz and Banzhaf cannot be trusted when they make pronouncements about the hazards of secondhand smoke. But it's clear that policy makers take their assertions at face value. Belmont, California, has banned smoking in apartments, condominiums, and most outdoor spaces based on a belief that secondhand smoke is akin to polonium-210, "extremely dangerous" even in tiny doses. State legislators pushing new bans blithely assert that exposure to secondhand smoke is just as dangerous as smoking and that smoking around your child is worse than beating him.
The New Scientist is not buying Glantz and Banzhaf's rationalizations:
Using bad science can never be justified, even in pursuit of noble causes. It only gives ammunition to those seeking to undermine your case. When anti-smoking groups want to make their point they should stick to the solid facts.
The New Scientist articles are not available in their entirety for free, but The Wall Street Journal has a summary, as does Siegel on his tobacco policy blog. As I noted last month, Siegel discussed this subject in a recent journal article, which apparently prompted the New Scientist coverage. His article cites specific examples of inaccurate warnings about secondhand smoke, some of which I quoted in my post.