FLC200, The Passive Smoking Scare: When Ruling Class Propaganda Masquerades as Science, Sean Gabb, 26th November 2010
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 200
26th November 2010
The Passive Smoking Scare:
When Ruling Class Propaganda Masquerades as Science
by Sean Gabb
One of the main news items for today is yet another report on passive smoking. This one was published by the World Health Organisation, and claims that, every year and all over the world, 603,000 non-smokers die from inhaling the tobacco smoke of others. A third of these, it adds, are children, and they are often exposed to smoke in their homes. These conclusions are based on looking at deaths during 2004 in 192 countries.
Science or Propaganda?
As science, this Report is worthless. Common sense alone should tell us that. Its purpose, beyond any reasonable doubt, is not to describe the world, but to justify the power of those who rule the world. It is meant to justify taxes and other aggressions against the masses, and to justify the employment of an army of clients. Modern states have no precedent in the scale of what they can steal, and no single ideology is nowadays sufficient to legitimise what they do. But the anti-smoking movement is an important strand in the coalition of forces that comprise the managerial state. Together with political correctness, environmentalism, health and safety, and a general desire to regulate every aspect of our lives, the war against tobacco is an equivalent of the obsession with religious conformity or the passion for big military establishments that legitimised earlier ruling classes.
For evidence, look at this quotation from the BBC coverage of the Report:
“This helps us understand the real toll of tobacco,” said Armando Peruga, of the WHO’s Tobacco-Free Initiative, who led the study.
The name alone of this organisation tells us that the Report is propaganda. The Tobacco-Free Initiative was no more likely to find against passive smoking than the Roman Catholic Church is to find against the Divinity of Christ. Then there are the recommendations of the Report. These are
that the provisions of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control should be enforced immediately to create complete smoke-free environments in all indoor workplaces, public places, and on public transport. [p7 of the Report]
It is accepted that a ban on smoking at home is for the moment unenforceable. But the Report continues:
[T]hese policies contribute decisively to denormalise smoking, and help with the approval and implementation of other policies that reduce tobacco demand, such as increased tobacco taxes and a comprehensive ban of tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship. [ibid.]
It is all entirely predictable. The Report is one more work of anti-smoking propaganda. The final objective is a world where no one smokes. This is to be achieved one step at a time. If it cannot yet be banned in the home, smoking can be banned everywhere else. When I heard the wireless coverage this morning, I dismissed the Report out of hand. Now that I have read it, I am in no doubt of its nature.
However, since I have taken the trouble to read it, I might as well explain why the Report is worthless in its specific claims about the 603,000 deaths from passive smoking.
Proving the Danger of Active Smoking
I will begin by noting that around 60 million people are said to have died in 2004. Of this number, 603,000 is around one per cent. Most governments are incapable of collecting even the more obvious vital statistics. Probably most African governments have no idea how many people die of diseases like tuberculosis or malaria – and these are direct causes of death. Probably, they have no real idea of how many people are born or die every year. Expecting there to be reliable statistics about passive smoking – which is only said to be a cause of other causes of death – from even a minority of the 192 countries surveyed requires heroic faith in the honesty and competence of people notorious for their incompetence and dishonesty. Indeed, the Report does not claim reliable statistics. It admits that
[f]or countries without survey data about second-hand smoke, exposure was modelled. [p.3 of the Report]
That is, the figures were guessed. Anyone who has followed the debate over “climate change” will know that facts derived from computer modelling are at best doubtful.
But, numbers aside, I really doubt if there is reason to suppose that passive smoking is a cause of other causes of death. Even for active smoking, the evidence of harm is rather weak. It seems reasonable to say that inhaling large amounts of vegetable smoke does the lungs no good. But it is very hard to say what long term harm it does. Once we look beyond the propagandistic claim that smoking is the biggest preventable cause of fatal illnesses, we see only a mass of conjectures. Because we have been able to observe their entire progress, we know the causes of tuberculosis and malaria. We have been able to gather data and make and test hypotheses. We are not in this position where heart disease and lung cancer are concerned. These appear to have long preparatory stages, during which no symptoms are shown. Tracing them back to any particular cause has not so far been possible.
After sixty years of research into the effect of active smoking, the best anyone has found are possible correlations. They are no more than possible correlations because they are based on three inherently weak methods of investigation.
First, there are cohort studies. Two groups of people are taken, the only significant difference between them being that one is comprised of smokers and the other is not. These groups are then followed through life, and periodically questioned, and their rates of cancer in old age are compared. This method is unreliable because people often lie about their behaviour, or are not able to keep accurate records of it. Unlike with tuberculosis and malaria, direct observation is replaced by questionnaire research. Also, it is possible for other important variables to be overlooked.
Second, there are case studies. Here, people who already have cancer are asked whether they smoked in the past, and how heavily. This method is still more unreliable. There are the same problems of evidence based on self-reporting, and there is the same possibility that other variables may be ignored. There is the further problem that not everyone asked will agree to answer questions about past lifestyle. The result is a biassed sample.
Third, there are ecologic studies. Here, exposure is estimated to a possible cause of illness, and then matched against incidence of the illness. When plainly stated, this method is obviously defective. No individuals are approached or tested. All that happens is that large statistics are brought together to see what emerges. Imagine this possible case:
In London three people per 100,000 die of lung diseases. In Teheran, 12 people per 100,000 die of lung diseases. In Iran, lead is allowed in petrol, but not in Britain. From this, we conclude that lead in petrol increases deaths from lung disease by up to 400 per cent.
Such a claim should never be made or accepted. It takes no account of any other differences between London and Teheran – the climate, the amount of industry in each city, the age and racial profile of each city, the standards of medical treatment, and so forth. The only advantage of ecologic studies is that, assuming the underlying statistics are themselves grounded in reality, they do reveal correlations.
But, whether strong or weak, correlation is not the same as cause. Correlations may inspire hypotheses about cause, but do not themselves establish cause. Saying, on the basis of any of the three methods, that smoking causes cancer is about as valid as claiming that, because most drivers who crash their cars have eaten bread that day, bread causes motor accidents.
The Danger of Passive Smoking
Now, I have so far discussed the possibility of a link between active smoking and heart disease or lung cancer. While they may not be reliable, it is possible to speak of correlations. Allowing for different rates of absorption, we do know what concentration of substances one cigarette puts into the lungs. We can also discover very roughly how many cigarettes some people smoke or did once smoke. But there is no standard measurement of how much secondary tobacco smoke non-smokers may inhale. There are too many obvious variations – size of room, ventilation, how many cigarettes smoked in the room, how long spent in the room, and so on and so on. As with active smoking, research depends on asking questions of people. A man may be able to say how many cigarettes he smoked each week in 1998. What can he say about the density of the cigarette smoke in the pub where he used to drink?
To be fair, the authors of the Report do quietly admit the worthlessness of their efforts:
There are uncertainties inherent in any assessment of this type. These limitations include uncertainties in: the underlying health data; the exposure data; the choice of study population (particularly the exclusion of potential effects in smokers); the effect sizes and their transferability to other populations and exposure conditions; the burden of active smoking (deduced from the total burden before estimation of the burden from second-hand smoke); and the susceptibility of ex-smokers. Estimation of exposure is one of the weaknesses of this approach because of the gaps in data for specific regions, the age-groups that had to be completed by modelling, and the variations in definitions of exposure across available studies. [p.7 of the Report]
But none of this seems to have found its way into any of the Tobacco-Free Initiative news releases or any of the news reports. The authors were given a brief. Except where children are concerned, claims about primary smoking have usually been flattened by arguments about free choice. It may be that smokers harm themselves, but that is their business. The whole passive smoking scare seems to have been manufactured as a way of showing that smokers harm others. This justifies oppression on the formally liberal grounds of protecting third parties from harm.The authors of this Report have argued their brief as best they could, regardless of their not knowing what is actually meant by passive smoking.
What is to be Done?
Hostile reviews of anti-smoking propaganda often conclude by accusing the body in question of wasting the tax-payers’ money, and calling for reforms to its management. I think this shows a lack of understanding. So far as our various rulers are concerned, the Tobacco-Free Initiative has not been a waste of money. Nor are all the other research projects and campaigns of other bodies. It is a central purpose of these bodies to lie to us about the dangers of smoking. Those who work for them are selected for their ability to conduct biased research and to dress up the resulting propaganda as scientific fact.
There is no point in demanding changes to the present health establishment. Expecting these people to start telling the truth is as naïve as expecting an estate agency to start offering driving lessons.
The only way to stop this flood of propaganda and lifestyle regulation is to shut all the relevant bodies down – to kick everyone employed by them unpensioned into the street, and to burn all the records. It may be that the wholesale research cuts I have in mind would deprive us of some incidentally true and even useful knowledge. But living in a freer world, where truth was more respected, would doubtless compensate for the loss.