Public Health

The Big, Fat Line Between Simplification and Lying

|

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.  

NEXT: Are Bacteria the Cause of Global Warming?*

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “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.

    This seems like a straw man – who exactly is making this claim?

  2. Here in tobacco friendly New York, we have daily commercial spots (paid for by the happy NY taxpayers) during the 6 & 11PM news wherein there is the assertion that “thousands of children are hospitalized anually due to the effects of secondhand smoke.” Funny how they never state their source. I suppose I could FOIL the data, right? I mean, government can’t just make shit up, right?

  3. I’m still not clear what interests are pushing the smoking bans. The money must be great to foster such total bullshit from supposedly serious people.

  4. Dan T.,

    There have been a number of studies done of the ACUTE effects of second-hand smoke on heart attack rates.

    Which anti-anti-smoking activists then respond to by pretending that the studies make claims about the long-term effects.

  5. who exactly is making this claim?
    I can’t believe I’m doing this, but one example is found at the “Secondhand Smoke Fact Sheet”:
    http://www.lungusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=35422

    The current Surgeon General’s Report concluded that scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to second hand smoke. Short exposures to second hand smoke can cause blood platelets to become stickier, damage the lining of blood vessels, decrease coronary flow velocity reserves, and reduce heart rate variability, potentially increasing the risk of heart attack”
    (source: The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: 6 Major Conclusions of the Surgeon General Report. A Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006; Available at:
    http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/secondhandsmoke/factsheets/factsheet6.html

  6. The problem is, such tactics are also used by business hiding behind astroturf groups when promoting their agendas. Will Reason investigate their assertions with the same rigor?

  7. It’s very disappointing to read a Jacob Sullum post that starts out referencing a “Big, Fat Line,” and ends up discussing tobacco.

  8. based on a belief that secondhand smoke is akin to polonium-210

    What about cobalt-thorium G?

  9. Using bad science can never be justified, even in pursuit of noble causes.

    That’s like saying that as long as Banzhaf et al are completely forthright about the specious science being used, impinging on personal freedom that harms no one else a noble cause.

    Bad science is only a secondary problem. The primary problem is that limiting personal freedom, especially when the limitation provides no actual benefit to anyone else, is seen as a noble cause.

  10. I’m still not clear what interests are pushing the smoking bans. The money must be great to foster such total bullshit from supposedly serious people.

    You would think, but this smells more of crusade than money, at least to me. Those pushing so hard are either 1) absolutely convinced that cigarettes are the devil and want to save people from them, or 2) they fucking hate, hate, hate them some cigarette smoke and want to stamp it out for good.

    Property rights, free association, and control of your own body are unimportant.

  11. I’m still not clear what interests are pushing the smoking bans. The money must be great to foster such total bullshit from supposedly serious people.

    It’s a lot easier to raise taxes on something when it’s considered the (latest) scourge of the earth.

  12. It’s a lot easier to raise taxes on something when it’s considered the (latest) scourge of the earth.

    Yeppers. The majority doesn’t smoke, it smells bad, let’s tax the fuck out of them! It’s free money from those morally inferior nicotine addicts.

    Almost forgot, it’s for the children too.

  13. I’m still not clear what interests are pushing the smoking bans. The money must be great to foster such total bullshit from supposedly serious people.

    It’s a lot easier to raise taxes on something when it’s considered the (latest) scourge of the earth.

    For example, if you want socialized medicine, and want to inch toward it by the SCHIP program, demonizing cigarettes would make it much easier to raise taxes on them, rather than to have to make the awkward claim (when you’re allegedly the ones on the side of the downtrodden) that “we’re raising a highly regressive tax on one of the poorer segments of society”.

  14. 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.

    Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly in the 28-second spot alloted to it by Couric, Williams & Friends. America is stupid. Thank Allah and NBC for dumbing things down for us.

  15. A few years back; Health Canada replaced the head scientist with a political scientist and set out to replace natural science as a form of protection, with the political flavour. What followed was an installation Province by Province of new health information bureaucracies placed like the watchers of the Taliban regime in every community across the country dedicated to nothing more than political propaganda to protect us from ourselves and the choices we may make. The placements empowered our National government to set new rules; a governing by imposed moralist authority; issues restricting and ignoring our freedoms, with healthy bodies and minds limited by the description of normalcy defined at the UN, health as an obligation to the state.

    We are now under orders; be healthy [mind and body] or pay the price with punishments, as once again our rights are diminished or perhaps eliminated altogether. Those who don’t smoke will also pay the price as a precedent is being established for comparative wisdom, to affect other demands. Established by tobacco control as an absolute example, in measuring the rights of the individual. It should be obvious to those of us who simply don’t like the smell, what we loose as the cost in eliminating it, is a possession much more valuable, we will not be able to go back without a huge cost to all of us.

    Ontario Premier Dalton McGivney’s henchmen announced in a published article a while back with the forcing of his anti smoker policies “smokers should get out the carrot sticks and quit or be punished”. When requesting a voice in tobacco control policies in Quebec, smokers were told by the head health scare hatchet man there; “if you smoke you are under the influence of your addiction so you have no right to speak.” The Ontario Premier had to one up that statement, with the formation of a website to encourage children to express government sanctioned hatred, with an appropriately named Stupid.ca The Global warming and fat pandemic campaigns are now calling for stakeholders to see Tobacco Control as an excellent example of how you get things done.

    De-normalization is the foundation of the Tobacco control campaign. The moralists decided over prune juice and caviar at one of their many tax paid seasonal events, to make smoking an unacceptable community taboo.

    The smoking ban is only one of many insults lodged against those who smoke to force a moralist restriction on them. This is not a reflection of community values but a top down imposition rallying the worst, in and among us, in an attempt by those in power to control community values top down, as a statement of arrogance among politicians, confusing who actually works for whom.

    The trash science created to empower the campaign is obvious and blatant political spin, in place of health relevant information. Health relevant information presented by a health department which no longer has the resources to investigate the legitimacy of the claims being made.

    The imposition of chemically treated fire safe cigarette paper is an excellent example of lobby borne incompetence; in a compassionate world this is known to be medical experimentation, which by international Law requires consent or at least education and choice.

    While reviewing the larger issue of Tobacco control and a number of other World Health Organization campaigns designed to modify how we think, I came across a number of ways different demographics are to be treated, because they realized in the planning stages; different groups will react to manipulations in different ways.

    It was not so long ago we heard the announcement Canadian taxes were going to be compensating a similar moral adjustment in our past among the native people. A reprehensible re-education plan now known to be crimes by government against the native people a shameful mistake, borne of promoted cowardice. Native children were taken from their homes and forced to integrate with so called right headed morality at that time. They were beaten for speaking in their native tongue, wearing traditional clothing or for any sign their personalities refused to abandon the old ways associating them with their own culture. We hear about land claims today and mostly believe they no longer have a right to the property taken from them more than a century ago, despite holding legal documents to that land which would be recognized in international law. Many feel they have no rights to the land again because of the process of denormalization along with its associated and necessary component of discrimination, controlling how the story is told to us in the media.

    One has to ask how the current assault on their culture with a similar ideological tact applied to our own cultures in different ways could be seen as any different, than the forced “cultural adjustments” we imposed upon them in the past. And the horrors we inflicted to set the standards, they would be forced to accept.

    We are compensating today our mistakes of the past and incredibly set out to repeat those same acts we recently apologised for. Repeated ignorance promoted today with Health Scare and Social Marketing described at Health Canada. It could be argued the horrors the Native People faced in the past were a lot more vigorous and physical, however one has to ask in response; is torture of the mind any less painful than a torturing of the body?. Further what gives the tambourine banging crowd the right to impose their will on the rest of us by coercive means, we who only wish to live a very short life on this planet, enjoying a simple right to live that life guided by the ethics we alone should decide?

  16. Mussolini defined fascism as an industrial socialism. Few today ever considered who are the largest promoters of political correctness or the large scale health care promotions, targeting individuals directly that smoke or are overweight.

    For the same reason I would not trust a tobacco company to provide health reliant information Neither should I be forced to rely on other conflicted industries for the information which forms the basis of my choices.

    At the moment the Tobacco industries from a high road perspective, are dispensing much more accurate and informative advice to the public than the total of the major medical institutions, which in retrospect is an entirely unsettling state of affairs. Scientific research should never be utilized directly to play an advocacy role, its very credibility is sustained in absolute unbiased non participation. Much as we should be able trust the news media groups to report the news as opposed to creating it. Those who do participate abandon the role of scientist to become politicians. A role which they can never reverse, at least not within the confines of credibility. A Government which is dedicated to protect its population from imposing harm on themselves, is the opposite of one which respects their rights of autonomy.

    Practitioners who utilize scientific information and take an active role in treating patients or protecting the public from environmental concerns can no longer be confident the information at their disposal is sound or scientific which places us all at increased risk.

    At the World Health Organization the process of HIA health intervention promotes exactly those twisted demands of political science in place of what is required. A process which teaches how to connect all human activity to health effects.

    The call to stakeholder partners, who will profit from a campaign of fear, is unconscionable and well below what we expect from Health care professionals. The promotions of Smoking alternatives, Charity Foundations and Big Pharma are obvious as are the deliberate actions obscuring the secondary supporting benefactors of fear promotions such as Insurance companies, Banks, Investment houses and Government taxation which causes large poverty increases and invokes directly an entirely preventable higher health risk to society, by its secondary effects such as smoking and obesity.

    Medicine and science is loosing credibility in an age of information where too much is laid bare for all to see. It is becoming common knowledge, little we hear from these so called unbiased sources, can be trusted, leaving us what to form our opinions?

    Back to the old superstitions and alternate sources of snake oils and potions which are rebounding as a direct result of that loss of faith.

    How much early mortality will result from medical grandstanding and paternalist politicians dispensing medical advice to their populace? Populations consisting entirely of protected children? Children in turn controlled by the fear death, as opposed to accepting its inevitability.

  17. Buried in the “assert” blog JS links to is an interesting sentence…

    Active smoking causes cancer of many other organs besides the lung, while secondhand smoke has been shown to be a cause only of lung and nasal sinus cancer.

    So are JS & Co. accusing the anti-smoking crowd of the same fallacy of equivalence that is often thrown around regarding the US/The terrorists.

    In this form: our “enhanced interrogation” is not equivalent to the behavior of the terrorists (which we agree is the standard for bad), therefore you are wrong to say that our “enhanced interrogation” is bad.

    Swap “second-hand smoking” for “enhanced interrogation” and “active smoking” for “behavior of the terrorists.”

    Or are we going with “has been shown to be a cause only of lung and nasal sinus cancer” = not really that bad.

  18. No, questioner, we’re saying it’s obvious to everyone with half of a brain that active smoke and passive smoke are very different, and shame on the activists who use “science” to pawn off their agendas on the public by claiming that active and passive smoking are the same.

  19. You people are seriously in need of a life: Pontificating on how regulation of an agent that is known to do serious harm to human lungs, immune systems and cardiovascular systems is a scary loss of personal freedom! How a substance sold by the profiteering pushermen tobacco companies is somehow equal to freedom of speech.

    Then, you could all just snort drano…

    Reason? No, more like pseudo-intellectual masterbation.

  20. So shall we all assume that Carrie would have cheered on Prohibition way back in the day?

  21. Carrie – what “agent” is that? Smoke? Do you think cigarette smokers invented smoke or something?

    Pontificating…is a scary loss of personal freedom!

    Oh, my bad. Perhaps English is not your first language. I should be more sensitive…or you should take a basic writing course and learn how to finish a thought.

    How a substance sold by the profiteering pushermen tobacco companies is somehow equal to freedom of speech.

    Not equal to freedom of speech – it’s kind of that more basic freedom of folks owning their own bodies. Stunning to me that liberals pushed the abortion agenda (where the philosophical ramifications are definitely not settled) but don’t see the hypocrisy in moving toward banning smoking (an issue where “my body, my choice” applies without question).

  22. 30 minutes or 30 seconds – smoking and second hand smoke are BAD. PERIOD. Please tell me that smoking is not bad.

  23. I’m still not clear what interests are pushing the smoking bans.

    *blushes

  24. Once again, Reason describes Michael Siegel as a “maverick anti-smoking activist” and reports on his efforts to critique anti-smoking activists for going overboard. I think his criticisms are useful, but I asked before (and don’t think got an answer): what actual anti-smoking efforts has Siegel been involved in that justify describing him an anti-smoking activist, maverick or not? His blog bio says I have 20 years of experience in tobacco control, primarily as a researcher. I have no idea what “tobacco control” means, but a quick scan of the material he has posted doesn’t reveal anything that seems calculated to reduce tobacco use.

  25. Wow, this thread really brought out the douchebags.

  26. Mia,

    30 minutes or 30 seconds – smoking and second hand smoke are BAD. PERIOD. Please tell me that smoking is not bad.

    Then why lie about it. I’ve heard the assertion that second hand smoke is as dangerous as smoking first hand. I’ve even heard people assert that second hand smoking is more dangerous. If 30 minutes and 30 seconds are equivalent, why not just tell the truth and let people come to the same realization that you are?

    I’m hardly saying that people should smoke. But at the same time, I’m saying that I really resent scientists lying to people, not because it might make people more likely to take away my cigarettes (I don’t smoke) or hurting tobacco companies (I’m not invested in them). Lying about science undermines the credibility of science.

    The left calls itself the ‘reality based community’. It doesn’t deserve the label. If your assertion is true smoking is bad, period, then why are you defending lies when the truth would work as well?

  27. who exactly is making this claim?
    I can’t believe I’m doing this, but one example is found at the “Secondhand Smoke Fact Sheet”:
    http://www.lungusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=35422

    The current Surgeon General’s Report concluded that scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to second hand smoke. Short exposures to second hand smoke can cause blood platelets to become stickier, damage the lining of blood vessels, decrease coronary flow velocity reserves, and reduce heart rate variability, potentially increasing the risk of heart attack”
    (source: The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: 6 Major Conclusions of the Surgeon General Report. A Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006; Available at:
    http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/secondhandsmoke/factsheets/factsheet6.html

    But this is not even in the same ballpark as saying that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke will give you a stroke.

    It appears that Michael Siegel is debunking claims that no serious person is making.

  28. Wouldn’t defending the right to pollute the air other people breathe be more of a cast of “Your body, my choice?”

  29. Fact: many pushing for smoking bans distort the scientific findings (or, more likely, don’t actually know what they are).

    Fact: The science is clear that second hand smoke is harmful, and potentially very harmful in certain contexts.

    Fact: those in the anti-anti-smoking camp are just as willing to distort the science to push their position as the other side.

    Fact: the society, on average, is less tolerant of the behavior of smoking, and has decided to be more forceful in enforcing what used to be a matter of politeness (smokers who smoke indoors around non-smokers have always be rude bastards).

    Opinion: smoking bans are not properly framed as a property rights issue, since the ban a behavior by individuals, not property owners.

    Opinion: smoking bans are not properly framed as “my body, my choice.” (c.f., joe’s “your body, my choice” comment)

    Opinion: In a world where there is an actual debate about whether torture is torture, this is a very very very very very low priority front on the fight to maintain freedoms.

    Opinion: Indoor smoking bans are justified by the epidemiological evidence, outdoor smoking bans make no sense and have no scientific/public health basis.

  30. Silly anti-smoking position: 2nd hand smoking is JUST AS BAD AS smoking, in terms of public health risk.

    Silly anti-anti-smoking ban position: efforts to reduce 2nd hand smoke with indoor smoking bans are JUST AS BAD AS attempt at outdoor smoking bans or outright prohibition.

  31. Jacob Sullum, maybe asking you directly is the best way to get an answer. What work that Siegal has done led you to describe him as an anti-smoking activist?

  32. Neu, the property owner is also banned from the activity. Banning what guests do is one thing, but if I own a building, I should be able to do anything that is legal there. And the freedom priority you give this issue shows you don’t understand anything about camels, tents, and noses.

  33. Strawman??

    I’ve heard it from just about every anti smoking activist I’ve met when I ask them what the big public health risk of second hand smoke is.

    And believe me, whenever I disagree the only thing I get is, its the scientific consensus!!!!!!!!!

    Apparently, Popplers scientific method has recently been replaced by consensus science, where instead of individual skeptical hypothesis testing, scientific truths are tested by their vote totals in state sponsored academies, and the more votes you have, the more true the scientific claim. In fact, if you get all the votes you have consensus, and consensus is infallible as it comes from the highest ecumenical seat of science.

    I’m just a kid so I guess I still believe in skeptical science, I hope my generation can revive it.

  34. James Ard,

    Neu, the property owner is also banned from the activity. Banning what guests do is one thing, but if I own a building, I should be able to do anything that is legal there.

    There is a reason that the concept of “place of public accommodation” developed. Since the activity being banned is smoking in a place of public accommodation (with all the qualifiers, not just “smoking”), whether you are the owner or not is irrelevant. Smoking in a place of public accommodation does not fall into the “anything that is legal” category.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.