News: Charlotte Exclusives

Blowing Second-Hand Smoke

Smoking is nasty, dumb, and costly. So why ban it?

Wonders never cease. The Mecklenburg County Commission finally agrees with me about something: Smoking is gross and bad for you. Unfortunately the board’s 6-1 vote last week to become the first local government in North Carolina to seek a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants is exactly the wrong way to deal with this nasty personal habit.

The vote itself was a remarkable about-face. Just weeks earlier board chairman Parks Helms put the smoking ban far down his own list of priorities. Yet after just a single presentation by the advocacy group Smoke Free Charlotte Mecklenburg the commission immediately moved to ask the legislature for permission to enact a ban. Commissioners were obviously influenced by the now-familiar tactic of anti-smoking activists roping second-hand smoke in with asbestos and benzene in the cancer-causing family. But this deceptive decade-old stunt needs to be retired from public discourse.

Years after the Surgeon General’s warning was affixed to packs of cigarettes, anti-smoking activists were repeatedly stymied by the personal responsibility argument when they attempted to crack down on smoking in the United States. As deadly dumb as smoking might be for any one person to inflict on themselves, dumb people could not be outlawed. Not surprisingly anti-smoking groups hit upon the idea of using the full force of federal environmental regulations to attack smoking. This approach would move the issue from the realm of personal choice to that of public health crisis. If tobacco smoke could be shown to harm non-smokers as well as smokers, then smoking could be forced from public places.

Fair enough, as a political strategy goes. But the simple fact is that despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s infamous and fraudulent “thumb-on-the-scale” ruling in 1993 which held the second-hand tobacco smoke was a Class A Carcinogen, the very worst kind, actual scientific evidence for harm to non-smokers is scant, at best.

What evidence there is comes from epidemiological surveys which are notorious for their fallibility when they rely on individuals to self-report what they do and how they do it. Then there is the issue of correcting the surveys for non-smoke related biases such as diet, exercise, and family history when trying to pin down the health effects of one component, like tobacco smoke, that a person might be exposed to in some unknown quantity. And this assumes the sample size of the survey is large enough and diverse enough to have any significance to begin with.

More importantly, what little correlation with adverse health effects these studies may indicate flow from this simplistic assumption: If non-smokers living with smokers die sooner – or more get cancer or heart disease – when compared to similar non-smokers not exposed to smokers, then second-hand smoke is the cause. You might as well roll with the Monty Python test for a witch – does she float? – with that kind of scientific rigor.

In 2003, author Michael Crichton called out the tobacco smoke scare mongering in a widely noted address at Cal-Tech on the topic of scientific fallacies of the day. Crichton observed that pressure-group tactics and an appeal to consensus, the notion that “everybody” believes something, has replaced actual scientific evidence in far too many public policy disputes. He explained:

In 1998, a Federal judge held that the EPA had acted improperly, had “committed to a conclusion before research had begun”, and had “disregarded information and made findings on selective information.” The reaction of Carol Browner, head of the EPA was: “We stand by our science….there’s wide agreement. The American people certainly recognize that exposure to second hand smoke brings…a whole host of health problems.” Again, note how the claim of consensus trumps science. In this case, it isn’t even a consensus of scientists that Browner evokes! It’s the consensus of the American people.

As with nuclear winter, bad science is used to promote what most people would consider good policy. I certainly think it is. I don’t want people smoking around me. So who will speak out against banning second-hand smoke? Nobody, and if you do, you’ll be branded a shill of RJ Reynolds. A big tobacco flunky. But the truth is that we now have a social policy supported by the grossest of superstitions.

Not surprisingly, Crichton developed this theme into his current novel, State of Fear, which explores the explosive notion that scare-mongers exploit the “consensus” view of environmental dangers to their own personal benefit.

The second-hand smoke kills crowd seems to sense that they need a fallback argument as holes are punched in their “consensus” view and now turn to the notion that it is simply good economics to ban smoking. Ban smoking and smoke-hating people will flock to restaurants, setting off a boomlet in nightlife. Or something. But this supposes that restaurant operators across the county now willfully resist adopting a no smoking policy despite the money that will make them. There is simply no evidence for this.

The harsh economics of the restaurant business say you want to be able to attract as many “crowds” as possible. A lunch crowd, a dinner crowd, and, for some, the very profitable cigarettes-and-drinks crowd at night. Worse still, the emergence of actual smoke-free restaurants in the county, a couple in Mint Hill and at least one planned for Matthews, for example, is taken as a sign that social trends favor a smoking ban imposed by local government.

Nope, wrong again. This trend is actually evidence that the dining market is responding to signals that some people want a no-smoking alternative and that a government mandate in this direction is not warranted. The no-smoking crowd is already under hot pursuit.

In sum, Parks Helms initial instincts were correct, a smoking ban at public establishments in the county is not an urgent matter for debate even if the continuing distortion of scientific evidence might be. Should the county pursue this matter valuable time and money, both public and private, will be wasted to no good purpose.