Cigarettes

How Truth Became a Casualty of the War on Smoking

Different types of nicotine consumption pose different amounts of risk.

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The Rediscovery of Tobacco: Smoking, Vaping, and the Creative Destruction of the Cigarette, by Jacob Grier, Kindle Direct, 267 pages, $14.99

The Cigarette: A Political History, by Sarah Milov, Harvard University Press, 394 pages, $35

When Clara Gouin started running the Group Against Smokers' Pollution (GASP) out of her College Park, Maryland, living room in 1971, she was rebelling against social norms she deemed oppressive. "Gouin was a housewife and the mother of two daughters, the youngest of whom had an allergy to smoke," University of Virginia historian Sarah Milov writes in The Cigarette: A Political History. "The child's reaction to cigarettes was so severe that it prevented the family from going out to eat. Even worse than being restricted in public was the expectation that nonsmokers had to accommodate smoking guests in their own homes. Ashtrays in the homes of nonsmokers were monuments to smokers' supremacy. 'What doormats we were!' Gouin recalled thinking as she lay awake one night contemplating nonsmokers' powerlessness."

The understandable grievances of put-upon nonsmokers like Gouin gave birth to a movement that ultimately banished smokers from nearly every place they might want to light up. In many jurisdictions, that includes outdoor spaces. Sometimes it even includes smokers' own homes. Half a century after Gouin founded GASP, as Jacob Grier shows in The Rediscovery of Tobacco, the dwindling minority of cigarette smokers (15 percent of American adults in 2019, per Gallup, down from 45 percent in 1954) is the group with the more plausible complaint of oppression.

Grier—a writer, bartender, and cocktail consultant who enjoys the occasional cigar and pipe but says humanity would have been far better off if the mass-produced cigarette had never been invented—is by no means calling for a return to the situation that Gouin found intolerable. "The proper path," he says, "lies somewhere between ignorant pleasure and outright prohibition."

Grier argues, for example, that state and local governments should allow smoking among consenting adults in certain contexts, such as bars and restaurants that want to offer the option. Even that modest plea is bound to provoke the ire of activists who will settle for nothing less than the "smoke-free society" that C. Everett Koop, surgeon general during the Reagan administration, deemed achievable "by the year 2000." Unlike Milov, who tells the story of the anti-smoking movement mainly as a triumph of public-spirited citizens over conniving capitalists, Grier details the costs of that victory, including unjustified coercion, politicized science, and a fanatical refusal to admit that different kinds of nicotine consumption pose different levels of risk.

Even Milov acknowledges that the push for smoking bans sometimes got ahead of the science concerning the dangers of secondhand smoke. Koop's "rather sweeping statements" on the subject in the preface to his 1986 report The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking, she notes, "gave way in the subsequent 300 pages to much more hedged and nuanced interpretations of scientific studies." At that point, she says, secondhand smoke was "an issue where actual uncertainty existed, where scientists of good faith disagreed on the magnitude of the risk if not on the existence of risk itself."

Although Milov leaves readers with the impression that the uncertainty was subsequently eliminated, Grier shows that the scientific case against secondhand smoke has never been as strong as activists and public health officials claimed. He notes a telling 2013 article published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute under the headline "No Clear Link Between Passive Smoking and Lung Cancer." The article described a large prospective study of 76,000 women that "confirmed a strong association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer but found no link between the disease and secondhand smoke." While "we don't want people to conclude that passive smoking has no effect on lung cancer," one of the researchers said, "this analysis doesn't tell us what the risk is, or even if there is a risk."

An expert quoted by the journal, University of Chicago oncologist Jyoti Patel, "said the findings were not new," adding: "Passive smoking has many downstream health effects—asthma, upper respiratory infections, other pulmonary diseases, cardiovascular disease—but only borderline increased risk of lung cancer. The strongest reason to avoid passive cigarette smoke is to change societal behavior: to not live in a society where smoking is a norm." Another expert, Medical University of South Carolina internist Gerard Silvestri, said "it's only the heaviest exposure that produces the risk." He added that we "kind of knew that before."

Those measured remarks, published by an eminent journal, came after decades when activists successfully lobbied for smoking bans by implying that the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke just might kill you, emphasizing the lung cancer risk in particular. The overriding goal, as Patel acknowledged, was not to dispense scientifically informed health advice but to denormalize smoking.

Having won that war, tobacco controllers can afford to speak a bit more candidly about the hazards of secondhand smoke. "In previous decades," Grier notes, "any researcher caught saying such a thing would have been hounded relentlessly by their peers and scrutinized for the most tenuous ties to Big Tobacco. What changed? Not the science, but the politics."

Some activists, such as Stanton Glantz, a co-founder of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights who now directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, went beyond downplaying the subtleties of the scientific evidence. Since 2003, Glantz has been promoting the highly implausible claim that bans on smoking in bars and restaurants cause immediate and dramatic reductions in heart attacks—as large as 60 percent, according to his initial report. While substantial post-ban drops can be observed in small, cherry-picked cities, those putative effects disappear when researchers look at large populations or large numbers of jurisdictions and take into account pre-existing trends.

The claim that smoking bans instantly and conspicuously reduce heart attacks was nevertheless parroted by advocates of such laws, credulously reported by news outlets, and even endorsed by a 2009 Institute of Medicine report, which omitted one of the most important countervailing studies. "The myth that banning smoking in bars and restaurants will bring about astounding reductions in the rate of heart attacks is now dead and buried in the scientific literature," Grier observes, "but for years the false promise of heart miracles has influenced public debate."

Grier also considers attempts to generate alarm about "thirdhand smoke": tobacco combustion residue lurking in rooms where people have smoked or on the clothing and bodies of smokers themselves. If "fear of secondhand smoke alienated smokers by forcing them to step outside," he writes, "fear of thirdhand smoke makes them untouchable pariahs." Such fearmongering "exposes the extent to which the anti-smoking movement has abandoned scientific credibility," he says. "Prominent anti-tobacco researchers…will promote any finding that helps delegitimize tobacco use, no matter how far-fetched or unsupported by the evidence."

That trend also disturbs Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel, a longtime anti-smoking activist and former Glantz protégé who nowadays regularly criticizes the alarmist claims and ad hominem reasoning of his erstwhile allies. Siegel is especially dismayed by the anti-smoking movement's irrational resistance to e-cigarettes as a harm-reducing alternative to conventional, combustible cigarettes.

"Driven by an almost puritanical inability to accept the fact that a person could obtain pleasure from nicotine without it killing them," Siegel says in a blog post that Grier quotes, "we have made the demonization of vaping the solitary goal of the movement, at the direct expense of what I always believed was our primary goal: to make smoking history." For dissidents like Siegel, it's clear that vaping—which is indisputably far less dangerous than smoking—should be embraced as a public health boon by people who say they want to reduce the death and disease caused by cigarettes.

Grier, who disdains cigarettes but would like to encourage an appreciation of high-quality tobacco products akin to the "slow food," craft cocktail, and microbrew movements, does not exactly share Siegel's goal of making smoking history. But both critics agree that activists have gone too far in stigmatizing smokers, sacrificing truth on the altar of ideology, and reflexively tarring anyone who disagrees with them as shills for Big Tobacco. The anti-smoking establishment's generally hostile reaction to e-cigarettes, which superficially resemble the real thing but contain no tobacco and do not burn anything, is a sure sign that something has gone terribly wrong with a movement that once claimed to champion science.

NEXT: L.P. Presidential Hopeful Lincoln Chafee Is Against Iraq War and Drug War

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  1. Sounds a lot like the current global-climate-warming-change crowd, doesn’t it?

    1. Nannies the lot of them. I bet Prohibitionists made the same claim the day after the ban came into effect.

      1. They are not nannies, but they are extremists. No restaurant I’ve gone to in Chicago in the past 20 or more years has accepted people smoking, and ditto for other public places. You cannot even smoke OUTSIDE of a building (except your own home) in Chicago.

    2. Exactly. Shoddy science, backed by a mob of control freak busybodies, bullied the country into policies that greatly restrict freedom and impose costs on all of us. Notably, the same charlatans are pushing AGW as pushed second hand smoke fears. These are evil people.

      1. “Such fearmongering “exposes the extent to which the anti-smoking movement has abandoned scientific credibility,” he says. “Prominent anti-tobacco researchers…will promote any finding that helps delegitimize tobacco use, no matter how far-fetched or unsupported by the evidence.”

        Gots to keep those grants coming!

        Much like the AGW Watermelons.

  2. “Grier argues, for example, that state and local governments should allow smoking among consenting adults in certain contexts, such as bars and restaurants that want to offer the option.”

    The justification for ending smoking in bars and restaurants in California (from where the smoking bans spread) came as a function of worker safety.

    “Since January 1, 1995, smoking has been banned in all enclosed workplaces in California, including bars and restaurants”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_smoking_bans_in_the_United_States#California

    The argument was that waiters and waitresses couldn’t choose not to work in an environment where people smoke, and so if their employers allowed them to work in an environment that might harm their health, it was effectively subjecting them to cancer risks against their will.

    Like so many other evils, this seems to stem from an anti-libertarian, false distinction between market choices and the will of market participants. If you choose to work for a company that specializes in washing windows on skyscrapers, you’re willingly accepting the risk that you might fall from the scaffolding–whether you like the idea or not. Wages sometimes compel us to do things we wouldn’t want to do otherwise, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing those things against our will. It means we’re being paid so much to do them that we’re willing to accept the risks.

    1. And all you need to fix that is some ductwork and a couple of strong fans.

      1. I smoke a cigar, and I would NEVER smoke one in a public place, e.g., restaurants, buses, trains, etc. (in fact, I am sure this is illegal anyways). Inconsiderate smokers caused ALL of the troubles they now complain about. I smoke cigars and even I don’t want to have to smell the smoke when I am dining, listening to a band, travelling etc.

        1. Lack of ventilation caused the trouble.

        2. Yeah, that’s not really how it went down at all.

          Smoking was the norm. Everywhere. All the time.

          It was quite ordinary to bum a cigarette or a light. Everyone was expected to have a lighter on them.

          People who didn’t smoke or didn’t like smoking had their preferences respected…. there were “non-smoking” sections. Literally 4 booths over in the corner for non-smokers. Right next to the smokers, but off by themselves at least.

          So there was no culture of avoiding smoking near others. Any public event would be filled with smoke.

          Then the tide turned with a massive and very expensive public relations campaign. But public opinion on the matter didn’t really turn until after the law was changed. Second hand smoke as a cancer causer was the lever that allowed the lobbyists to get the law through…. but the lack of the stink was what allowed it to stay.

          I have never smoked, but I was personally against these laws on pure libertarian and freedom of association grounds. My principles still tell me that it is your right to set the rules in your place.

          But my experience tells me that no smoking as the standard is so, so, so very much better. I’ve not really changed my mind on the principle, but I’m glad we don’t do the smoking everywhere thing anymore. It really did suck donkey balls.

          So thanks for being a considerate smoker, even if the definition of “considerate” has changed massively in the last 45 years.

        3. It’s called freedom bro.

          I don’t have a problem with a bar choosing to be non smoking. It is the business owners choice to make, and in fact the vast majority of places would make this choice in 2020.

          However it is BS for the government to tell the guy who wants to have a smoking bar he cannot. On trips to Idaho where it is still legal to allow smoking in bars, there were some that had smoking… And some that didn’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

          As a former smoker who now mostly vapes, but still likes to smoke sometimes when drinking, it’s awesome to have the choice. Anything else is nanny state bullshit.

          1. Exactly. Establishments that want smoking sections could separate them and provide appropriate ventilation to meet a standard of air cleanliness for staff.

            But reasonable solutions that respect all are rejected ‘for the children.’

            1. Yup. I’ve been to a few smoking bars that had such hardcore ventilation systems that you basically couldn’t tell they allowed smoking. It was crazy how much air those systems were moving.

              But whiny bitches won’t even accept a small, separate room, which allows ZERO bleed of air between the two… Because they’re cunts.

        4. CGN: Might you consider someone smoking a cigarette across the street an inconsiderate smoker? Complaining about minor annoyances is in itself an annoyance, particularly if the complainer manages, in one mere paragraph, to virtue signal AND state “I” no less than seven (count ‘um!) times. I’ve little doubt that you’re inclined to prattle off a list of the myriad foods you dislike, while dining with others. Sitting there smug in the belief that your table mates are hanging on to your every word because you are so resoundingly fascinating

          Now if we as a society could somehow devise a way to declare a ban on boring, supercilious gas bags….

    2. “Liberals” are pussies, so they’re determined to make as many people possible as weak as them.
      The US did just fine for 2 centuries with everybody smoking all the time, everywhere

    3. Wages sometimes compel us to do things we wouldn’t want to do otherwise, like work.

  3. Politics corrupting science? Say it ain’t so!

    1. Lysenkoism is alive and flourishing in the USA.

  4. is a sure sign that something has gone terribly wrong with a movement that once claimed to champion science.

    “Claimed” is the key word here, and it was probably always a false claim.

  5. How Truth Became a Casualty of the War on Smoking
    Different types of nicotine consumption pose different amounts of risk.

    In other words, you’re saying that government should take the amount of risk to individuals involved when deciding what to make illegal. Spoken like a true progressive. Why are you writing for a nominally libertarian magazine?

    1. I’m not reading that here at all.

      Different types of nicotine consumption pose different amounts of risks, so free individuals should be free to make informed choices for themselves–rather than the government inflicting a one-size fits all standard on everyone.

      That’s what I read.

      1. P.S. Sullum had been writing against tobacco bans since before there were tobacco bans. I’m not sure he ever threw in the towel on questioning the assumption that smoking tobacco causes cancer.

      2. NOYB2 is a well-known troll.

        1. “troll — to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content”

          Congratulations: you just identified yourself.

      3. Different types of nicotine consumption pose different amounts of risks, so free individuals should be free to make informed choices for themselves–rather than the government inflicting a one-size fits all standard on everyone.

        Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? The experts know the correct answer to the question of how much risk a given activity poses is “too much”. You start comparing cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuff, snus, and vaping and pretty soon you might be concluding (incorrectly) that there is some significance to the difference you’re finding between and among them. The truth, of course, is that it’s not even necessary to examine the difference between them because there is no significant difference. Admittedly, there is a difference between .05% and .005%, but it’s not a significant difference when the only allowable standard is 0.0%. Which is why it’s better not to even bring up the matter of the difference between .05% and .005%, it’s only going to confuse you if you’re not a certified expert like the good folks in government who only want what’s best for you even if you’re too stupid to know what’s for your own good.

        1. “The experts know the correct answer to the question of how much risk a given activity poses is “too much”. “

          Actually, you’re talking about choices with a qualitative component. Experts have no authority when it comes to an individual’s qualitative preferences. The dumbest redneck in the most education forsaken holler in Appalachia or the Ozarks has absolute authority in regards to his or her own qualitative preferences, and the opinions of experts mean nothing in that context. This is why people should be free to make choices for themselves in the context of markets rather than have their choices made for them by experts. Experts simply cannot account for qualitative preferences, so individuals need to be able to represent their own qualitative preferences in markets.

          I put my life at risk riding a motorcycle to work and back every day. I average about 14,000 miles a year on motorcycle. One of the reasons I prefer to put my life at risk on a motorcycle, rather than drive a car, is because motorcycles are more fun. If experts are incapable of quantifying my preference for fun against something as universal as safety, that doesn’t mean my preference for fun is irrational. It means the expertise of experts is only useful insofar as I use it to inform my personal choices, all of which have qualitative components. Accounting for fun, taste, beauty, the upsides of smoking, etc. is simply beyond the scope of their expertise, and pretending it isn’t is irrational.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority

          Ignoring expertise of those who claim to know what we want better than we do ourselves is entirely rational.

          1. The point is that to a libertarian, the question of what risks nicotine consumption poses has no place in a discussion of whether individuals should have the right to consume nicotine.

            1. The point is that each of us should be free to make choices for ourselves because experts cannot account for the varying qualitative preferences of 330 million different individual Americans, and any time someone claims that experts, “know the correct answer to the question of how much risk a given activity poses is “too much””, they are necessarily guilty of a fundamental flaw in their logic.

              There are people out there who put a higher weight on safety than any other consideration. They typically lock themselves up in their homes and don’t leave for years. They’re typically given diagnoses like “agoraphobic” and “paranoid”. The rest of us compromise our safety for a plethora of varying qualitative reasons on a daily basis. Central planners being unable to account for this is one of the most fundamental arguments against central planning and in favor of markets.

              Scientology and central planning both prey on the same ignorance.
              If you imagine some expert knows your qualitative preferences better than you do, it’s probably because someone at some point persuaded you to abandon your own authentic preferences and assume someone else’s. Regardless, we’re talking about a basic logical fallacy, here. Your perspective is unique, and so are your preferences. No, experts do not know how the correct answer to the question of how much risk a given activity poses is “too much.

              They cannot know that.

              It isn’t possible.

              1. The point is that each of us should be free to make choices for ourselves because experts cannot account for the varying qualitative preferences

                That’s what I said.

                Hence the question: why does a supposedly libertarian magazine talk about expert opinions on the risk of smoking at all? Expert opinions are utterly irrelevant to the question of whether people out to have a right to make their own choices.

      4. Reason has been as anti-tobacco as any progressive in the 2 years I’ve been reading.
        All their pro vaping arguments are based on vilification of tobacco.
        It’s like their global warming stance – totally push the progressive narrative, but offer nominally different solutions.

        An object heading in the wrong direction isn’t stopped by placing an object traveling in the same direction, just slight slower, in front of.
        An object is only stopped by confronting it with an object going the opposite direction.

        1. All their pro vaping arguments are based on vilification of tobacco.

          No, the arguments are based on the measurable difference in safety of the products. Tobacco is unarguably more dangerous than vaping. Pointing that out is not vilification.

      5. The libertarian statement:

        free individuals should be free to make informed choices for themselves

        Period. End of story.

        The progressive statement:

        Different types of nicotine consumption pose different amounts of risks, so…

    2. I smoke a cigar, and that is not what is being said. Your argument would advocate for not prosecuting drunk drivers. Smoking is something I like, but if others do not, and do not have any way NOT to be bothered by it, as is the case in a bar or a restaurant, put the damm smoke out.

      1. Why?

        If some bars allow it, and others do not… Then people can decide where they want to go. Those bothered by smoking can go to the “pussy toolshed bars where losers hang out,” and the cool kids can go to the smoking bar. Choice is what freedom is all about!

      2. “Your argument would advocate for not prosecuting drunk drivers”
        I agree with not prosecuting “drunk” drivers. The definition of “drunk” has gone off the deep end in the name of revenue generation. I have no problem with prosecuting “impaired” drivers, whether it is for alcohol, drugs, texting and several other causes. The same type of stigma attached to tobacco is attached to alcohol.

  6. But…but…it’s called Truth.org…

    1. They lie. Even the name is a lie.

  7. She complains that in the ’70s her non-smoking family was held hostage to provide indoor smoking access to smokers?
    Grow a spine. I grew up in that era of the ’60s and 70s, and never once did my parents have an ashtray in the house or allow smokers to smoke indoors. And did not accommodate such when I got my first apartment or thereafter either.
    You get trodden on only if you permit other to trod on you.

    1. Pussies gon’ puss!

      My grandma never allowed anybody to smoke in her house, despite all her kids and a chunk of extended family being smokers when I was a kid. My aunt had more smoking paraphernalia, of the most tricked out variety imaginable, strewn all about her house. People could choose their path even back in the day!

  8. reflexively tarring

    I see what you did there.

  9. ‘The article described a large prospective study of 76,000 women that “confirmed a strong association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer but found no link between the disease and secondhand smoke.’

    Second-hand smoke is thousands of times more diluted than first-hand smoke. You don’t need a study to tell you that. Just common sense.

    1. But nobody gets a huge federal grant from his buddies to ‘study’ common sense.

      1. No, you do need a study to tell you that…

        The dose makes the poison. This is axiomatic in medicine. And you only know what the dose in question is if you do the research.

        Of course, if you don’t listen to the research because your entire existence as an organization depends on a different answer……

    2. I once had a friend who claimed that second-hand smoke is more dangerous than smoking, until I pointed out that smokers get both first-hand and second-hand smoke.

  10. Nicotine still causes arteriosclerosis.

  11. Nannies the lot of them. I bet Prohibitionists made the same claim the day after the ban came into effect.
    row lyrics

  12. “How Truth Became a Casualty of the War on Smoking”
    The government got involved.

  13. But wait, aren’t the anti-vaping fanatics actually promoting smoking? By spreading lies about the harm of vaping, they reinforce the stubbornness of smokers to stay with their inhalation of combustion byproducts addiction. For smokers, there’s no case being presented that they would gain anything by switching to vape. Who are really the shills for Big Tobacco?

    1. We have a winner. How much of the “war on vaping” is sponsored by “big tobacco” afraid that vaping is cutting into it’s profits? Does anybody find it funny that the States that want ban vaping are also the ones that borrowed heavily against their tobacco settlement money? How about the commercials against vaping being made by the same people making the ones against smoking that the tobacco companies have to pay for?

      1. It’s more sponsored by state governments (cig taxes bring in massive amounts and some states rely on them) and the pharma industry (millions made from products like nicotine gum and patches.

        Though big tobacco definitely is looking for regulatory capture, I say the two biggest anti vaping pushers are the former I mentioned.

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  15. There are A LOT of lies about smoking, especially relative harm of different situations.

    Basically all the “gnarly” stuff you ever heard about smoking health risks was on 1 pack a day plus smokers, many being 2 or more pack a day smokers. Those very same studies showed that between half a pack and 1 pack a day the risks dropped like a rock. Like 15 a day vs 20 reduced risk by like 50% or something insane, I don’t recall the exact figures.

    However by half a pack a day (10), the statistical risks of basically all health related issues were literally in the single digits as far as increases over being a non smoker. Like say 7% greater chance of lung cancer or whatever. At UNDER 10 a day the risks couldn’t even be statistically detected.

    So if these assholes had just been honest and said “Look, smoking is not a good habit… But if you’re gonna do it keep it to 10 a day or less.” they may well have saved tons of lives. Some people just can’t quit completely… But a lot of those people MAY have been able to cut down to 10 a day, but thinking that 10 a day is just as bad as 20, a lot of people probably never bothered.

    It’s irresponsible to not just let the facts be known and let people make up their own minds.

    Don’t even get me started on how fucking stupid all the vaping shit is. When I quit smoking and switched to vaping I could IMMEDIATELY feel the difference in how my lungs etc felt. Vastly better. There is no equivalence between the 2, and anybody who switched can tell you that shit right off.

  16. I say to them: live and let live – stop preaching your morals on the masses. What is your virtue is my disgust – your judgements strangle democracy.

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