FLC073, Saving the Kiddies, Enslaving Adults, Sean Gabb, 25th October 2002

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 73
25th October 2002

Saving the Kiddies, Enslaving Adults
Sean Gabb

I am going on BBC Radio Scotland this coming Sunday morning to discuss passive smoking and children. Some researcher at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London is claiming that children whose parents smoke at home have a higher than average chance of contracting a range of serious illnesses. According to the news release helpfully provided by the BBC researchers, the illnesses include asthma, meningitis, cot death, and something called "glue ear". I shall have only nine minutes in which to argue my case—nine minutes that I must share with at least two different groups of health fascists. I will therefore say here what I shall say only in part to the listeners.

The first point I will make is that the evidence on passive smoking of all kinds has not so far been convincing. It has been gathered by comparing the incidence of lung cancer and other diseases among non-smoking partners of non-smokers with that among non-smoking partners of smokers. Inevitably, such evidence is of poor quality. It relies heavily on answers to questionnaires. People forget and people lie. There has also—at least in the more famous studies—been a lack of rigorous control for other variables. In the Hirayama study of the 1980s, for example, there was no account taken of differential exposure to traffic pollution, or to pollution arising in the home from the use of solid fuels for heating and cooking. The British Department of Health has tried to minimise the effect of such errors by using meta-analysis. This is effectively taking a number of studies and averaging their results. Obviously, though, an average result is only as reliable as the initial results used to calculate it.

In any event, the average results are statistically insignificant. One claim, much used in the late 1980s, was that passive smoking increased a person's chance of contracting lung cancer by 30 per cent. The numbers on which this claim was based were far less dramatic. It was alleged that without exposure to other people's tobacco smoke, a person's chance of contracting lung cancer in any one year was one in ten thousand, and with exposure one in thirteen thousand. Put differently, one's chance of not contracting lung cancer were said to rise from 99.9987 per cent to 99.9999 per cent. Even if this were not accounted for by statistical error, no one would pay sixpence to insure against such a risk. So much for that terrifying 30 per cent!

I have no great learning in epidemiology. But what little I have convinces me that no epidemiological claim of any kind—and certainly none regarding a connection between tobacco and ill health —is worth considering unless accompanied by full disclosure of the studies on which it is based. How many people were observed? When, where and for how long were they observed? If not directly observed, what checks were made on the accuracy of their answers to questioning? What investigations were made into other possible causes of the problem being studied? Whenever I have taken the trouble to look at the detailed studies, the claims have in all cases fallen apart. There have been other studies during the past decade, I grant, and I have not paid much attention to them. But I have no reason to suppose them any more rigorous in their methodology than those I looked at in the past. And I am sure that if a more certain connection had been found, it would have been made front page news everywhere in the world.

The second point I will make is less technical. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the claims about child health were reasonably true. What would follow from this? The news release is silent on action, and I suppose I shall be told in the studio that parents must be exhorted—at their own expense as taxpayers—not to smoke at home when their children are about. But supposing they pay too little attention to these exhortations—as they doubtless will - what then? The natural answer is not that those using this research will sadly shake their heads and go away to other business. It is that if parents will not change their ways voluntarily, they must be compelled to change; and if this is not possible, their children must be removed to some place of alleged greater safety. Though I presently forget where, I have read claims that smoking near children constitutes "child abuse".

Now, I will ignore the facts of the enormous child welfare bureaucracy that has grown up in this country—a bureaucracy that continually enlarges itself by discovering more excuses to steal children away. I will also ignore the documented facts of just how safe the places are to which children are normally stolen. What I will develop is the principle that I can see being established. If smoking at home is used as an excuse for intervention by the child welfare authorities, the principle is stated that interventions may be made whenever some aspect of home lifestyle can be connected with some danger to a child's health. This principle granted, however, it can be indefinitely extended.

Suppose—and I am inclined to think this likely—it could be shown that Asian children were put in above average danger in later life of haemorrhoids and stomach cancer by eating the spicy food given them by their parents. If we allow intervention in the case of parents who smoke, why not in the case of parents who use lots of curry powder or monosodium glutomate? Again, Jews are generally believed to have an above average chance of being depressed. Perhaps this is the result of some genetic difference. But it may also be an effect of the pressures to achieve put on Jewish children from a very young age. Again, many working classes appear to feed their children a diet of fish fingers and microchips. Perhaps these cause problems later in life.

Where should we draw the line? At present, on the whole, it is still drawn defensibly. If parents are causing some deliberate or recklessly negligent harm to their children, and this harm is great enough to be reasonably apparent, there is a case for intervention - but not otherwise. The main abuse by the authorities is still a matter of fabricated claims about things like "satanic abuse" or a minute dwelling on real neglect at home combined with a refusal to acknowledge possibly greater harm in the places of alleged safety. But let the principle stated above be accepted in the case of smoking, and no family in the country will be safe.

The truth, I suspect, is that most health fascists are not actually worried about children. Their real concern is to stop adults from smoking. When they started their war on tobacco in the 1960s, they were openly authoritarian in their assertion of the right to act as our guardians. Since then, they have been put on the defensive by the reply that adults should have the right to do with themselves as they please. Therefore, starting in the 1980s, they began to manufacture statistics about passive smoking. This allowed them to claim that smoking was not a purely self-regarding act, and so could be regulated in public to prevent harm to others.

Of course, the most important others to be protected are children. What we are seeing now is a use of what my friend Stuart Goldsmith calls the "saving the kiddies argument". This is used as an excuse to regulate adult behaviour when all other excuses have been found wanting. We see it used in arguments over Internet pornography, over general advertising, over drugs, and over just about everything that some adults may like to do but that others would like them not to do, and where an open justification for control has been rejected or cannot easily be imagined.

I do not accept any claim that I have so far seen that there is such a thing as passive smoking. But if it does exist, it is reasonable to suppose that children are among its unwilling victims. But the only response in a free society is to pay no legal attention. The world is an imperfect place, and no amount of lawmaking will make it perfect. Criminal laws are useful to help reduce the grosser harms we may be inclined to do each other. Civil law can reduce some of the more refined harms. But when laws are made to protect children from more than the most unreasonable acts or lifestyle choices of their parents, that is an abuse of law. Such laws are unlikely to produce their stated end. They are likely, indeed, to produce greater evils than those alleged in support of their making.

If I get to say all this on Sunday morning, I shall be surprised. But at least I have written it.