PBS Guest: Public Health Officials Lying About Harm from Second-Hand Smoke

A recent guest on PBS Newshour was rather blunt on the campaign against second-hand smoke, saying that there is very little evidence that second-hand smoke is bad for you. Further, he added, the whole campaign against smoking has nothing at all to do with community health or preventing pollution but was initiated strictly as a "nanny state" effort to affect the health of the smoker himself.

The guest, Ronald Bayer of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said that as he began to look at the public campaign to eliminate smoking, he found a strange dichotomy among students who wanted the government to have a hands-off policy for hard drugs but at the same time wanted government to come down hard on smoking tobacco.

Bayer said that the attitude made him wonder about the decades-old anti-smoking crusade that many have engaged in, specifically wondering if any of the claims proffered by anti-smokersĀ as reasons to oppose smoking had any truth to them.

He found that many of the common claims against smoking really have little evidence to back them up.

Bayer said that the anti-smoking cabal proffers three main reasons to ban smoking: 1) that smoking is bad for those around the smoker, the so-called second-hand smoke problem; 2) that the litter created by smokers hurts wildlife that accidentally ingest filters; and 3) that people have a right to shield children from even seeing people smoking in public places so as to prevent them from emulating smokers.

Yet, as he looked into these reasons, he said he found little proof that any stand up to scrutiny.

"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," Bayer said.

Bayer then began to find that the campaign to ban smoking really had nothing at all to do with the three main reasons anti-smoking zealots give to end smoking but, instead, had everything to do with trying to change the habit of the smoker for the good of the smoker.

Why are public health officials and their supporters essentially lying to the public about their aims? It has to do with perceptions, Bayer said.

I think it's because public health officials don't want to be tarred with the brush of the "nanny state," of "Big Brother." In the United States, it's the same story of the motorcycle helmets. When we tried to impose motorcycle helmet laws in the United States, we made all kinds of arguments about how when a person gets into an accident, they really cost us all money because they have to go to emergency rooms and we have to pay for it. That's not why we wanted motorcycle helmet laws. We wanted motorcycle helmet laws because we wanted to protect motorcyclists against their stupid behavior. We couldn't say it, because that sounds like we're finger wagging.

Ultimately, even though the anti-smoking crusade has been successful in changing habits, Bayer feels that public health officials shouldn't use the sort of misleading tactics that they are using to end smoking because it hurts their reputations.

My concern is that when public health officials make claims that can't be backed by the evidence, they run the risk of people saying, "We can't trust you." I understand it is probably more effective to say the reason we're banning smoking in parks and beaches is that we're protecting you from sidestream smoke, or your kids from looking at something very bad for them or that we're protecting wildlife. That might be more effective way in the short run of getting these statutes or regulations passed and put into place.

But in the long run, I think, that if people begin to feel that they're being toyed with, that the evidence is not being presented in a straightforward way, it's going to backfire. I think the evidence in the arguments made to implement these bans is absent, and in some of the cases, very weak.

In the meantime, the sort of underhanded tactics that Bayer decries are becoming an important new Obama administration tactic as his "nudge squad" begins to look to ways to use misleading rhetoric to cajole Americans into accepting big government solutions to everyday problems.


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