Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Staddon Snuffs Out Arguments About ‘Societal’ Harms of Smoking

• John Staddon, Unlucky Strike: Private Health and the Science, Law, and Politics of Smoking, University of Buckingham Press, 2014, 136 pages, $26.95.

RALEIGH — Everyone knows that smoking is irrational, a form of slow suicide for the smoker that also causes health problems for anyone who is exposed to their smoke.

And we know that anyone who would question those truths must be a shameless tobacco industry flack.

To challenge — indeed, refute — the above beliefs, we have Unlucky Strike by Duke University neurobiology professor John Staddon. In this book, he shows that the conventional wisdom about smoking is almost completely mistaken.

Staddon is neither an industry flack nor an apologist for smoking. He’s a scientist who can’t tolerate the misuse of science and specious arguments that anti-smoking zealots use to get their way.

His first target is the belief that smoking is a societal issue. “Quite apart from any supposed ‘rights’ of smokers, smoking is not in fact bad for the common good. Smoking is a private health problem, not a public health problem,” Staddon writes. Anti-smoking advocates will declare that statement to be nonsense because there’s proof that smoking lowers life expectancy, which certainly makes it a social, public health issue.

That conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise, Staddon argues. A longer lifespan may be better for each individual (or maybe not — people make many trade-offs that might decrease their longevity), but the abstraction called “society” is not necessarily better off just because the people who comprise it are living longer.

I think he’s right in saying that longevity shouldn’t be regarded as an absolute value and must “be weighed against other values and other costs and benefits.”

What about all the added health care costs that smokers impose on society — costs of treating them and also nonsmokers who are victimized by second- and even third-hand smoke?

This is the biggest weapon on the anti-smoking arsenal, but Staddon shows that smoking does not in fact add to total medical costs. The problems smoking causes are mostly “fast-acting killers” that reduce the much greater costs of lengthy treatment for other, inevitable, health problems.

Smokers are making a trade-off — an increased risk of severe medical problems at an earlier age in exchange for the enjoyment they get from smoking. The latter point almost always is overlooked by those who want to stamp out smoking. Many smokers report that they find it relaxing and that it helps them concentrate. Nonsmokers may believe that smokers shouldn’t make that trade-off — that smokers should share the values of nonsmokers – but the argument that smokers impose big medical costs on the rest of society is mistaken.

As for the health damage to others from passive smoke, that’s an even weaker reason for the crusade against smoking. Some “research” purports to prove that passive smoke is harmful, and the claim that there is “no safe exposure level” to such smoke has become part of the conventional wisdom.

Staddon argues that this so-called research is nowhere close to being real scientific proof that passive smoke causes health problems because it amounts to nothing more than correlations. Referring to a much-publicized report on how second-hand smoke hurts children, he writes, “Basically, what these guys did was trawl through government data on more than 4,000 children looking at everything they could think of and then analyzing the data to death until they found something publishable — like more bad news about smoking.”

He is similarly disdainful of the widely accepted statement that there is no safe exposure level to smoke. There is no scientific evidence for that claim and, Staddon points out, it’s impossible to see how such an assertion ever could be proved. Human beings, he observes, have lived with some smoke in their environments since the beginning of time, so it’s just not credible to maintain that we must now go to extraordinary lengths to get rid of every wisp of tobacco smoke.

The antismoking crusaders have taken to the courts in search of like-minded judges to advance their cause, and have met with much success. Staddon tears great holes in one especially disturbing ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who went so far as to find tobacco companies guilty of criminal racketeering merely because they have contended in public that the harms posed by second-hand smoke and low-tar cigarettes are lower than those of smoking high-tar cigarettes.

We’re in a bad way when the First Amendment no longer protects firms that dare to disagree with the beliefs of health zealots.

Staddon’s penultimate chapter examines the ugly politics and economics of the Master Settlement Agreement between states and tobacco companies. It was finalized in 1998 after the attorneys general of many states linked arms to make the tobacco companies an offer they couldn’t refuse. Until the mid-1990s, tobacco companies had won all every lawsuit brought against them on the grounds that smokers knew and accepted the risks. But after an antitobacco judge threw out that defense, the companies decided that they’d be better off if they agreed to the MSA.

The deal extorts huge amounts of money from the tobacco firms, paid to the states to be used however the politicians see fit. It also protects the firms from any competition, so they can raise prices.

Takeaway message: Smoking, like many other things, isn’t healthy, but it’s much worse to let moralists and crusaders hijack science and government policy in their quest for the perfect society.

George Leef is a contributor to Carolina Journal.