On today's Reason Online Hit & Run blog, Jacob Sullum has a clever piece which takes off from my post criticizing the inaccuracy of California state Senator Deborah Ortiz's claim that "children are effectively smoking a pack and a half a day for every hour they are exposed to smoke in a car."
Sullum writes: "So if a 6-year-old travels a half-hour each way to and from school, during which time his mother smokes a total of, say, half a dozen cigarettes, he might as well be smoking a pack and a half? He'd be better off smoking a whole pack by himself than he is riding in a car with someone else who is smoking? This sort of nonsense, rather than emphasizing the hazards of secondhand smoke, implies that the risks of a pack-a-day cigarette habit are barely worth worrying about."
The Rest of the Story
This is an insightful and important point. The only thing we're doing by twisting and distorting these data to try to create a more dramatic sound bite is to undermine the public's appreciation of the hazards of active smoking. If the public really were to believe that kids sitting in a car with someone smoking for an hour were as bad as that kid actually smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes, then they would probably not view a pack-a-day cigarette exposure as being much to worry about.
Think about it:
We've told the public that active smoking is no worse than being exposed to 30 minutes of secondhand smoke.
We've told the public that active smoking produces only as much heart damage as 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure.
We've told the public that active smoking is similar to a brief exposure to secondhand smoke in that both increase the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
We've told the public that active smoking is less hazardous than passive smoking because secondhand smoke contains asbestos (mainstream smoke is known not to contain asbestos).
We've told the public that active smoking is less hazardous than passive smoking because secondhand smoke contains plutonium (mainstream smoke is known not to contain plutonium).
In other words, we've basically told the public that active smoking isn't all that it's been cracked up to be. Isn't that far worse than what the tobacco companies have done? At least they have just questioned whether there is enough evidence that smoking is harmful. They haven't actually quantified the risk and disseminated to the public the conclusion that active smoking is about equivalent to a brief inhalation of secondhand smoke.
With friends like ourselves, we don't really need the tobacco companies as enemies. Or, in other words, the cigarette companies can just sit back and watch as we self-destruct due to our insatiable desire to over-dramatize the hazards of secondhand smoke.