Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at my reception a few weeks ago at a Lakewood, Ohio hearing on banning smoking in restaurants and bars. Such events tend to bring out the penny-ante dictators. After all, when customers can readily find smoke-free facilities and nobody’s forced to take a job, such bans are inherently authoritarian. But these people went beyond the standard bullies with a noble-sounding cause, making Mussolini look like freedom’s friend.
The nine-member commission appointed to advise the city council on the ban originally arranged to have six witnesses testify. Three for and three against, right? Try six for and zero against. Then they relented and deigned to allow one witness on the other side — until they discovered it was me.
Specifically, those behind the national jihad against so-called “passive smoking” insisted I must not speak. One email labeled me a “shock jock” — an interesting metaphor considering I’ve never even guest-hosted a radio show.
Hours before my flight I got the word that the panel had, under the threat of civil disobedience from the Small Business Coalition of Cleveland, again relented. This was so long as I went last. By then the media and bored audience members would be gone. My time was also cut by a third at the last minute, but I rather saw that coming.
So did I shock them? I hope so. Somehow the multitude of studies I discussed had been “overlooked” by the throng of witnesses before me.
I informed the panel that the study that began the crusade, published in 1993 by the Environmental Protection Agency, had, despite the Agency’s insistence, found no statistically significant link to lung cancer. If the EPA had used the normal standard for “statistical significance,” a measure of the probability that the outcome resulted from sheer chance, they would have found nothing. Since the football fell short, they used a laxer standard to move the goal posts back.
I told them the EPA also found a mere 17 percent increased risk, yet the National Cancer Institute has said that even a 100 percent increase is “considered small” and is “usually difficult to interpret. Such increases may be due to chance, statistical bias, or effect of confounding factors that are sometimes not evident.” (The exception is with very large studies, but the EPA’s was not.)
I noted that the other “authoritative” study linking passive smoke to lung cancer, commissioned by the World Health Organization, actually showed a statistically significant reduced risk for children of smokers. For spouses and co-workers of smokers, it found no increased or decreased risk.
And I told them that the largest of the passive smoking studies (35,000 participants) and longest (39 years) found no “causal relationship between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (passive smoking) and tobacco-related mortality.”
I was going to say that passive smoking crusaders had attempted to link virtually every disease known to passive smoking “with the possible exception of herpes, hangnails, and hemorrhoids.” But lo! One of the previous witnesses was a pediatrician who claimed passive smoke did cause herpes.
Fancy that, a virus spread by smoke. It’s impossible to satirize these zealots, nor exaggerate their arrogance in believing they will never be challenged.
I addressed specifically the health of workers. Such independent bodies as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have found that in facilities where smoking tables are segregated (virtually all that even allow smoking), passive smoke “concentrations in the nonsmoking section of the restaurant in question were not statistically different from those measured in similar facilities where smoking is prohibited.”
Another Oak Ridge study of waiters, waitresses, and bartenders in the Knoxville, Tennessee area found a large range of exposure, with nothing detected at the bottom end. But even the top end the levels indicated were “considerably lower than Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration workplace standards.”
Yet we’ve long known that “passive smoking” is not a scientific term but a propaganda one. A 1975 New England Journal of Medicine study found that even back then, when having smoke obnoxiously puffed into your face was ubiquitous in restaurants and bars, the concentration was equal to merely 4/1000s of a cigarette per hour.
And while obviously you can inhale smoke from others’ cigarettes, we also know “the dose makes the poison.” Thus we are constantly bombarded by such human carcinogens as ultraviolet radiation and estrogens but in such small amounts the body’s defense systems ward them off. We weren’t built to defend against several cigarette packs daily.
This explains why, despite what we’re so often told, passive smoke health studies keep coming up negative unless twisted into something resembling the Gordian knot.
None of which matters to the activists, to whom any means justifies the end. Having made all the progress they can with “Your smoking will kill you,” they changed tack to “Your smoking will kill others.” (Or at least give them herpes.) Former Surgeon General David Satcher essentially admitted as much at a Washington, D.C. hearing when he said a ban on workplace smoking would “be effective in creating a new social norm that discourages people from smoking.”
Smoking — real smoking — is both vile and deadly. I fully sympathize with those who want to see it go the way of the mastodon. But they lose me when they slip on the jackboots and fudge the science.