Civil Liberties

The Totalitarian Crusade Against Second-Hand Smoke

There are few issues that are as riddled with outright claptrap as the scare about what smokers' puffing is doing to innocent non-smokers.


Assef Elweter

If there really were such a thing as a bullshit detector, a machine that bleeped upon encountering nonsense, it would probably go into meltdown whenever someone talked about second-hand smoke.

In the modern public sphere, there are few issues that are as riddled with myth, misinformation, contradictory claims and outright claptrap as the scare about what smokers' foggy puffing is doing to us innocent non-smokers.

In recent years we've been told that second-hand smoke, or passive smoking, as some people call it, is as bad as smoking itself and can give you lung cancer. And apparently if you are surrounded by it in a car that has its windows closed that is like being in the most smoky, nicotine-stained bar you could ever imagine (if such bars still existed, which of course they don't).

Yet it turns out that these claims about the toxicity and cancer-causing powers of other people's smoke are either untrue or unproven. So how do prissy anti-smoking campaigners and health-freaky politicians continue to get away with churning out tall tales about second-hand smoke? Why won't this panic die under the boot of actual facts? What gives it its Michael Myers-like ability to keep coming back, in a crazier form every time, wagging its warning finger at humankind?

The evidence-light nature of the second-hand smoke scare was on full display during British politicians' recent mean-spirited attempt to outlaw smoking in cars in which children are present.

Last week, the House of Lords, our unelected second chamber, gave its nod of approval to a new Bill that would make it an offense to smoke in a car with kids, even if the windows are open. The Bill is now working its way back to the House of Commons, and if a majority of the members there agree that coppers should have the right to stop and threaten with arrest any motorist who has that apparently deadly combination of a lit ciggie and a child in his vehicle, then the Bill will become law and another bit of Brits' everyday freedom will be stubbed out.

Smoking in a car with minors is already banned in Australia, Canada, South Africa and in some American states, including California, Maine and Oregon. These bans capture superbly the zealous miserabilism of the modern-day nannying'n'nudging set. They expose the new authoritarians' casual disregard for the notion of privacy, so that even our privately owned vehicles come to be seen as fair game for petty laws to curb and control what was once perfectly legal behavior; they reveal the nannying lobby's powerful distrust of everyday men and women, who are now viewed as so bone-headed and bereft of decency that new laws are required to prevent them from polluting their own children, both physically and morally; and they show what shockingly low esteem the ideal of autonomy is held in these days, so that anyone who stands up and says "I think adults should be free to choose what vices to indulge in and pleasures to pursue" is either laughed at for being naive or branded a wicked stooge for Big Tobacco.

So what evidence have British politicians cited for their desire to ban smoking in cars? Well, it's not really clear. Peruse British media coverage of the second-hand smoke issue and I guarantee you will end up bamboozled.

One of our public health ministers, Luciana Berger, said last week that the evil of puffing in cars with kids has to be squished because "a single cigarette can create concentrations of tobacco smoke in a car that is 23 times more toxic than a typical house." That "23 times" figure sounded familiar. Where have we heard it before? Ah yes, the prestigious British Medical Association (BMA) once claimed that lighting up in a car with the windows closed creates toxin levels that are "23 times higher than… a smoky bar."

Excuse me? Which is it? Is smoking in a car so nasty that it turns your vehicle into a hurtling smoke machine that is 23 times more toxic than a smoker's house or 23 times more toxic than a smoky bar? It can't be both. You don't have to be a peer-reviewed scientist to know that a smoky bar will be a hell of a lot smokier than a smoker's house, so is smoking in a car 23 times worse than the former or the latter?

It gets worse. The BMA has got into trouble for its version of the "23 times as toxic" claim. In 2011 it was forced to correct a press release that said toxins in a smoky car were "23 times greater than in a smoky bar," changing it to say that the toxins in a smoky car were actually only "11 times greater than in a smoky bar."

It gets even worse. One of the key studies cited by the BMA as evidence for its massively reduced "11 times as toxic as a smoky bar" claim actually says something quite different. Published in the prestigious American Journal for Preventative Medicine, the study found that in a car with closed windows, smoking generated particulate concentrations of 272 micrograms per cubic metre of air. And it found that in bars, the toxins levels were either similar (smoky bars in Massachusetts had 206 micrograms per cubic metre) or were around double that found in a smoky car (smoky bars in New York reached 412 micrograms per cubic metre).

So to summarize—smoking in a car possibly makes that car 23 times as toxic as  a smoker's house, 23 times as toxic as a smoky bar, 11 times as toxic as a smoky bar, or less than doubly as toxic as a smoky bar. Got it?

The flimsiness of the evidence offered for a ban on smoking in a car with kids is typical of the promoters of second-hand smoke scare. These folk have also told us that second-hand smoke is an "invisible killer" (in the words of Britain's National Health Service) because it "causes lung cancer in non-smokers." Lots of people believe this claim. But there's no evidence to back it up. At the end of last year, the much respected U.S. Journal of the National Cancer Institute carried out an exhaustive study of the research and found "no clear link between passive smoking and lung cancer."

Unperturbed by that blow to their evidence-low but hyperbole-high claims, the anti-smoking zealots have now started talking about "third-hand smoke." This is the residue from smoking that sticks to walls and other surfaces. This week, a report from the University of California, Riverside claimed to have found that mice exposed to such "smoke" (it's not really smoke, of course) became a bit more hyperactive and developed liver problems. One science website headlined its report on the new study: "Third-hand smoke just as deadly as first-hand smoke." Seriously? Who but the most blinkered loather of the pastime of smoking could claim sans shame that touching a wall in a room where someone once had a cigarette is as bad as dragging nicotine into your lungs from an actual cigarette?

What next—"fourth-hand smoke," to describe coming into contact with someone who was once in a room in which someone once had a cigarette?

Why does this fact-lite fearmongering about second and third-hand smoke trundle on even as the evidence for it either falls apart or is laughed out of existence by serious research? It's because the whole idea of second-hand smoke isn't really a scientific one at all. No, it's more of a metaphor, a metaphor disguised as science. It's a pseudoscientific allegory for our highly suspicious era in which we're all expected, encouraged in fact, to see our fellow citizens, our work colleagues and even our own parents as toxic creatures whose very breath and touch might harm us.

What really underpins the obsession with second-hand smoke is not scientific evidence but today's broader culture of mistrust, our profound sense of alienation from one another. Second-hand smoke is one of the main mechanisms through which we're invited to see the world around us—its workplaces, bars, restaurants—as threatening, and that world's inhabitants—strangers, our colleagues, our own families—as poisonous. It speaks to, and further entrenches, today's fearful and atomised outlook, in which we're more likely to look upon other people as corrupters of our health and minds rather than as potential comrades or friends.

The profoundly anti-social nature of the second-hand smoke nonsense is summed up in advice offered by the U.S. Lung Association. It says you can protect yourself and your kids from second-hand smoke by keeping them away from "places where people usually smoke": "This could include restaurants, relatives' homes, cars, etc. The chemicals in tobacco smoke get into curtains, carpets, toys, furniture, walls, car seats, clothing, skin, and hair…"

In short, everywhere and everyone is dangerous; invisible toxic elements lurk in granny's carpets and restaurant curtains; in your cousin's hair and your kids' playmates' toys; on park swings, on public benches, on buses. Better to stay at home, in a totally smoke-free environment, than venture into the filthy world outside your front door.

What a dispiriting and divisive view of the world. Through the increasingly unhinged crusade against smoking, we have been cajoled with suspect science into viewing all people—even mom and dad—as the potential poisoners of our bodies and souls. The reason dodgy scientific claims about other people's smoke keep emerging is because they are moulding themselves around, and offering justification for, an already existing social malaise—one in which we are invited to fear people, to fear the world, to disavow autonomy, and to trust the state. The specter of the threatening, toxic Other, of he who smokes, is one of the main ways in which the authorities now encroach upon our everyday lives and cynically split man from man.

Enough. I would prefer to run the risk of getting a hacking cough through freely mixing with smokers than to live in a detoxified, disinfected society in which we're expected to judge every person and scenario by how many particulate concentrations they contain.