Ten Myths of the Anti-Smoking Movement

From the book (April 1998) titled "For Your Own Good" by Jacob Sullum (a non-smoker)


The tobacco companies hid the truth about the hazards and addictiveness of cigarettes from the American Public.
  Industry double-talk notwithstanding, warnings about the health risks of smoking go back hundreds of years. James I, in his 1604 Counterblaste to Tobacco, called smoking "a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs." In every generation, tobacco's opponents have echoed him, attributing a long list of maladies to smoking (see chapter 1). Persuasive scientific evidence of tobaccos hazards, which began to emerge in the early 1930s, has received widespread attention since the '50s (see chapter 2). Likewise, the difficulty of giving up the tobacco habit has been common knowledge for centuries (see chapter 7). Sir Francis Bacon, lord chancellor under James I, observed, "In our times the use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom." The seventeenth-century polemicist Johann Michael Moscherosch called smokers "thralls to the tobacco fiend," while Cotton Mather dubbed them "Slave[s] to the Pipe." Fagon, court physician to Louis XIV, described the tobacco habit as "a fatal, insatiable necessity... a permanent epilepsy."


"Tobacco is tobacco".
  Although all tobacco products pose some health risks, cigarettes are by far the most hazardous. Cigars and pipes are considerably less dangerous. Research by the American Cancer Society found that "death rates were far higher in cigarette smokers than in non- smokers," while "cigar smokers had somewhat higher death rates than nonsmokers" and "there was little difference between the death rates of pipe smokers and the death rates of men who never smoked regularly." By one measure, smokeless tobacco is 98 percent safer than cigarettes. (See chapter 2.)


People smoke because of advertising.
  There is remarkably little evidence that advertising plays an important role in getting people to smoke, as opposed to getting them to smoke a particular brand. The 1989 surgeon general's report conceded that "there is no scientifically rigorous study available to the public that provides a definitive answer to the basic question of whether advertising and promotion increase the level of tobacco consumption. Given the complexity of the issue, none is likely to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future." The 1994 report, which focused on underage smoking, also acknowledged the "lack of definitive literature." None of the widely publicized studies that have appeared in recent years, including the much-hyped research on Joe Camel, actually measured the impact of advertising on a teenager's propensity to smoke. (See chapter 3.)


Smoking imposes costs on society.
  Because smokers tend to die earlier than nonsmokers, the costs of treating tobacco-related illness are balanced, and probably outweighed, by savings on Social Security, nursing home stays, and medical care in old age. Every analysis that takes such long-term savings into account, including reports from the RAND Corporation, the Congressional Research Service, and Harvard economist W Kip Viscusi, concludes that "social cost" cannot justify raising cigarette taxes. (See chapter 4.)


Secondhand smoke poses a grave threat to bystanders.
  The evidence concerning the health effects of secondhand smoke is not nearly as conclusive as the evidence concerning the health effects of smoking. The research suggests that people who live with smokers for decades may face a slightly higher risk of lung cancer. According to one estimate, a nonsmoking woman who lives with a smoker faces an additional lung cancer risk of 6.5 in 10,000, which would raise her lifetime risk from about 0.34 percent to about 0.41 percent. Studies of second- hand smoke and heart disease, including the results from the Harvard Nurses Study published in 1997, report more dramatic increases in disease rates -- so dramatic, in fact, that they are biologically implausible, suggesting risks comparable to those faced by smokers, despite the much lower doses involved. In any case, there is no evidence that casual exposure to secondhand smoke has any impact on your life expectancy. (See chapter 5.)


If secondhand smoke really is dangerous, smoking ought to be banned everywhere, except in private residences.
  Since almost all of the epidemiological evidence about the health effects of secondhand smoke relates to long-term exposure in the home, the fact that this is the one place exempted from current and proposed smoking bans suggests a residual concern for property rights. Yet business owners have property rights, too. If the government respected their right to establish rules about smoking on their own property, potential employees and customers could take such policies into account when deciding where to work or which businesses to patronize. Whether secondhand smoke is a health hazard or merely a nuisance, such a voluntary system is the most appropriate way to deal with the conflicting demands of smokers and non-smokers, since it allows for diversity and competition, rather than simply imposing the will of the majority on everyone. (See chapter 5.)


States have a right to demand compensation from tobacco companies for the costs of treating smoking-related diseases under Medicaid.
  This claim ignores the long-term savings traceable to smoking (see Myth 4) and the tobacco taxes smokers already pay to cover the costs they supposedly impose on others. Furthermore, by the same logic, states could sue the manufacturer of any product associated with disease or injury, including alcoholic beverages, fatty foods, candy, firearms, swimming pools, bathtubs, skateboards, and automobiles. The makers (and consumers) of such products should not be blamed because politicians decided to pay for health care with taxpayers' money. (See chapter 6.)


The tobacco companies have been secretly manipulating the nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers hooked.
  Nicotine control was never a secret. Several brands of denicotined cigarettes were introduced as early as the 1920s. Claims of reduced tar and nicotine have been conspicuous since the 1950s, and the yields of each brand have been advertised since 1971. The very idea of a consistent nicotine yield for a given brand implies control, which cigarette manufacturers achieve through a variety of methods that have long been discussed in trade journals, books, and government reports. (See chapter 7.)


Smoking is "a pediatric disease."
  Although most smokers start as teenagers, the vast majority are, in fact, adults. And while it raises the risk of certain illnesses, smoking itself is a behavior -- something people choose to do -- not a disease. As then-surgeon general C. Everett Koop noted in his 1984 speech calling for "a smoke-free society," smoking "is a voluntary act: one does not have to smoke if one does not want to." (See chapter 7.)


Once people have started smoking, nicotine addiction prevents them from stopping.
  This is so contrary to everyday experience that it's amazaing politicians and anti-smoking activists can say it with a straight face. In fact, there are about as many former smokers in this country as there are smokers, and almost all gave up the habit on their own, without formal treatment -- usually by quitting cold turkey. (See chapter 7.)

For Your Good (by Jacob Sullum)

For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health
Jacob Sullum

April 1998