October 16, 2010
Nanny Bloomberg's Outdoor Smoking BanBy Peter Wilson
Last month, New York Mayor Bloomberg proposed a ban on outdoor smoking in and on 1,700 parks, plazas, and beaches. The City Council in Cambridge, Massachusetts recently followed New York's lead (Chronicle 10/4/10), joining a number of college campuses and California cities. This radical intrusion into private lives is rationalized as a public health measure to protect citizens from secondhand smoke. It's therefore worth reviewing the debate from the past decade when it became the accepted view that secondhand smoke is a public health risk.
Anti-smoking activists state with assurance that "the science is settled"; secondhand smoke murders 3,000 or 10,281 or some number of children, waitresses, and other blameless people every year.
Christopher Booker, a journalist at the London Sunday Telegraph, and Richard North investigated the "settled science" claims in their 2007 book, Scared to Death. They write,
Booker and North cite a major 1998 study by the World Health Organization, which found, inconveniently for anti-smoking lobbyists,
The study reported a 16% increase in relative risk of cancer to the spouses of smokers, but with a confidence interval (CI) of 0.93 to 1.44. A CI spanning 1.0 (no risk) means that the risk might be higher, or then again, it might be lower; thus, the finding is statistically insignificant. A small increase in cancer rates can have multiple causes. A person who tolerates a spouse smoking inside the house, for example, might be less vigilant about diet and exercise, resulting in health risks unrelated to passive smoking.
A second study commissioned by the American Cancer Society, conducted over four decades by Professors Enstrom and Kabat and with 118,094 subjects -- "the longest and most comprehensive scientific study ever carried out into the effects of passive smoking" -- concluded bluntly in its peer-reviewed article in the British Medical Journal that there was "no causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco-related mortality."
In a pattern familiar to the global warming debate, dissent from the politically motivated "consensus" was attacked. Both WHO and the ACS attempted to block publication of their own studies, and anti-smoking campaigners accused the authors of being shills for the tobacco industry.
Organizations like the National Cancer Institute disagree with the studies' findings, stating, for example, that "there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke." I would like to respect an august government body like the NCI, but such claims are unsubstantiated and patently ridiculous. "No safe level"? As in one breath taken a hundred yards downwind of a smoker?
Booker and North report that in 1998, Covance Laboratories equipped a thousand subjects in twenty European cities with monitors to measure the amounts of environmental tobacco smoke inhaled. The average was the equivalent of smoking 0.02 cigarettes a day. A Welch study found that spending twenty hours a week exposed to tobacco smoke in a pub was the equivalent of smoking 0.05 cigarettes a day. If the human body is so fragile that five-hundredths of a cigarette will cause irreparable harm and early death, we ought to have gone extinct long ago.
Despite dubious scientific evidence of harm, emotional campaigns of waitresses toiling in toxic work environments won the day. Over the past fifteen years, anti-smoking zealots have been inordinately successful in banning indoor smoking around the globe. The libertarians among us question why we can't have smoking bars and non-smoking bars, and why it's any of the government's business. Indoor smoking bans, however, are likely here to stay. Smokers are in a minority, and it's not an issue that non-smokers oppose with passion. I, for one, am happy I don't have to add the price of dry cleaning to my restaurant bill.
If exposure to tobacco toxins in a smoky bar is minimal, the amount you are exposed to outdoors with no roof or walls to concentrate rising smoke is infinitesimal.
New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley defended his actions:
The first claim was derived from a Stanford University study that showed that if you are downwind and 0.5 meters (19.6 inches -- not three feet) from a smoker, outdoor exposure is comparable to that of indoor smoke. f you are upwind, or at a distance of two meters or greater, exposure drops to zero. Once a smoker finishes the cigarette, outdoor smoke dissipates, and exposure is also zero.
The second claim appears to come from an Italian study published in Tobacco Control magazine which reports that particulate emissions from cigarettes are ten times that of an eco-diesel car.
WebMD describes the study's methodology: "the scientists lit three cigarettes -- one after another -- and let them smolder for a total of 30 minutes."
It might be presumptuous to question scientists, but wouldn't it have duplicated real-world conditions more accurately to have someone smoke three cigarettes? Have these experts never been in a bar where someone left a partially extinguished cigarette smoldering in an ashtray? A hot fire burns clean, incinerating particulates, while a smoldering one fills the room with smoke. Furthermore, secondhand smoke has passed through a highly efficient filtration system -- the human lungs. Another problem: the study was conducted inside a garage, yet Health Commissioner Farley uses it to justify an outdoor ban. Finally, the study measured only particulates, ignoring carbon monoxide and other poisons in auto exhaust. If cigarette smoke is "worse" than car exhaust, ask yourself if you'd prefer a car idling inside your house for half an hour or three smoked cigarettes.
But let's let their conclusion stand. Three cigarettes equals ten cars. Imagine that you are standing in Times Square with three cigarette smokers twenty inches away from you, blowing smoke in your face. Unless it's 2 AM, during the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, far more than ten cars would pass by you, generating many times the particulates. The only logical conclusion is to ban cars from New York City. Then again, someone in the mayor's office is probably already working on that idea.
An outdoor smoking ban is motivated less by public health concerns than by a sanctimonious intolerance of other people's bad habits and a refusal to accommodate the slightest offense to the nostrils in the public square. The big-government liberal constantly seeks ways to extend the coercive power of government into the lives of individuals. To see our future under the soft tyranny of the nanny state, look to France, where 175,000 cigarette police are on the public payroll.