Thursday, August 22, 2013

Blowing Smoke

A public health professor fesses up on The Real Reason Behind Public Smoking Bans:

PBS NEWSHOUR: Let's a step back: why, and when, did these bans start taking effect?

BAYER: They really began in earnest in the early 1990s, so it's part in parcel of the tightening of the tobacco control movement, the recognition that we have to do more because several hundred people die each year from tobacco-related diseases. I looked at the arguments for why we had to ban smoking in parks and beaches, and there were three -- and they were really very striking.

One was that smoking is dangerous to people around the smoker. So, it's one thing if a smoker wants to smoke, it's his or her business, but as one tobacco control advocate said, if you can smell it, it may be killing you. We're familiar with the second hand smoke argument -- that's what happens if you ban smoking in a bar, or a restaurant. But the beach or a park is a very different location. It's open, the air is open. So what is the risk? And the public health people said, we don't know the exact risk, but there is a risk, and it's unacceptable.

The second argument was that tobacco butts endanger wildlife, because they get washed into the sea and fish and birds consume these butts and it kills them. Or, cigarette butts represent the kind of revolting kind of litter on beaches, and to prove that, people involved in environmental control would actually count the number of cigarette butts they found on a beach and there are billions and billions of those, as you can imagine.

The third argument, and the most interesting argument to me, was that parents and families have the right to take their kids to the beach, or a park, without seeing anyone smoke. It's like bad behavior, just the way we want to protect our kids from hearing people curse, or get drunk; we don't want them to see smokers because maybe they'll emulate it.

PBS NewsHour: And do these arguments pan out?

I discovered the evidence was really weak. The evidence of harm to non-smokers on the beach or in a park from someone smoking is virtually non-existent. The evidence that fish and birds are dying because of cigarette butts is virtually non-existent. And even the evidence that seeing someone in a park or beach will encourage kids to smoke is extremely weak.

So I said to myself, what's going on here? What's the public health impulse that's involved that leads to these bans if the evidence is so weak? Because everyone in public health believes that what we do should be evidence-based.

As I thought about it, it became very clear that what was involved wasn't that we were trying to protect non-smokers from sidestream smoke on parks and beaches. We weren't really concerned about birds and fish. There wasn't really evidence that we were going to protect kids by disallowing smoking in parks and beaches.

What was involved was that we really wanted to make it less and less possible for people to smoke, because it's bad for them and we're trying to protect smokers themselves from a behavior that's going to increase the risk of disease and death.

So public health officials have essentially lied to the public about the true dangers of second-hand smoke for years all the while pretending that their claims were based on solid scientific evidence? I’m sure that this is the only case where something like this has occurred and other similar situations where we’re being warned about imminent dangers and told that the threats are based on science are all perfectly legitimate, right?