Smoking bans not about health of non-smokers

A couple of interesting notes about smoking bans being passed or in effect in various places around the country. First off, it seems they aren’t about clearing the air for non-smokers after all.

If you’ve gotten used to smoke-free bars, here’s a new concept to wrap your mind around: smoke-free cigar lounges. This innovation comes to us courtesy of Washington state’s voters, who recently approved an initiative that bans smoking in nearly every indoor location except for private residences.

The ban makes no exception for businesses whose raison d’etre is tobacco consumption, even if they have ventilation systems that whisk smoke away as soon as it’s produced. By forbidding smoking within 25 feet of entrances and windows, it even threatens to eliminate sidewalk smoking sections and quick outdoor cigarette breaks

As these provisions suggest, the real motivation behind government-imposed smoking bans is not to shield customers and employees from secondhand smoke, although that rationale is popular with the general public. For the activists and government officials who push the bans, the main point is to discourage smoking by making it inconvenient and socially unacceptable, transforming it into a shameful vice practiced only in privacy and isolation. . . .

Secondhand smoke is, in any case, not the main concern of those who promote smoking bans in the name of “public health.’ Laws like Washington’s are “one of the most effective ways to provide the strong incentive often needed to get smokers to quit,’ according to John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.

“We know tough indoor laws are a motivator to quit,’ a spokesman for the Washington Department of Health told the Everett Herald. “We want to help people do that.’ How could smokers be anything but grateful? — Jacob Sullum

Shocking. Democrats legislating morality. What will they adopt from the Republicans next?

Of course, they don’t see it that way. They see it as saving people from themselves. Unfortunately, you can’t force someone to not be self-destructive. Nor is it the American way to do so.

Second, those same anti-smoking crusaders have been manipulating statistics from places with smoking bans to try to prove their point.

Researchers in Colorado claim to have confirmed the amazing power of smoking bans to reduce heart attacks, a phenomenon first invented discovered in Helena, Montana, in 2003. You may recall that two local physicians, aided by anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz, reported that Helena’s ban was followed by an immediate 60 percent reduction in heart attacks, a claim later downgraded to 40 percent. Now we’re told that the heart attack rate in Pueblo, Colorado, fell by 27 percent within 18 months after the city banned smoking in “public places’ a couple years ago.

In its press release about the unpublished study, the Pueblo City-County Health Department conflates correlation with causation, saying the data from Helena “showed restrictions on public exposure to secondhand smoke caused a sharp decline in heart attacks.’ If this had already been demonstrated, why do any more research? In fact, the Helena data indicated only that the ban was followed by a drop in heart attacks, not that the former caused the latter.

The press release also obscures the distinction between reducing secondhand smoke exposure (the ostensible aim of smoking bans) and pressuring smokers to quit (the real aim). It notes that “the study didn’t distinguish between smokers and nonsmokers, but rather represented a combination of both smokers and those impacted by secondhand smoke.’ In other words, some, most, or all of the drop in heart attacks could have occurred among smokers driven to quit by the ban. Yet the press release quotes one researcher who says “this study further validates the argument that limiting exposure to deadly tobacco smoke can save lives’ and another who claims “this study provides important knowledge that people can be healthier if secondhand smoke is removed from public places.’

. . . In any case, it’s not at all clear there’s a phenomenon here that needs explaining. Hundreds of cities in the U.S. are covered by state or local smoking bans. I imagine the heart attack rate declined in more than a few after the bans took effect, went up in others, and stayed about the same in most. That’s the pattern you’d expect purely by chance. Identifying cities where heart attacks declined proves nothing. If these laws have the sort of impact people like Stanton Glantz are suggesting, there should have been a noticeable post-ban drop pretty much everywhere with similar restrictions. — Jacob Sullum

It would be a nice bit of manipulation, if it weren’t so easy to see through the smoke that the non-smokers are blowing in our faces.

Update November 18: What if secondhand smoke really isn’t a health hazard at all?