Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anti-Smoking Advocates' Arguments Deteriorate After Lack of Health Basis for Broad Outdoor Smoking Bans is Exposed

After Sunday's and Contra Costa Times articles exposed the weakness of anti-smoking groups' argument that complete outdoor smoking bans are necessary because even a brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart disease or cancer, it appears that their arguments in support of Calabasas and Belmont-type (complete) outdoor smoking bans are rapidly deteriorating.

On an international list-serve discussion forum regarding secondhand smoke, one advocate argued that despite the lack of evidence that complete outdoor smoking bans are necessary to avert a substantial public health hazard, they are still justified because government also routinely bans outdoor behavior that is considered "intrusive, corruptive of minors, or offensive."

The advocate wrote: "Some examples of these banned or heavily restricted activities include touching another person without their permission, nudity, overt sex, urinating, defecating, spitting, playing loud music, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, injecting heroin, snorting cocaine, etc."

Another advocate argued that these complete outdoor smoking bans are justified because outdoor levels of smoke can be quite high.

Another advocate addressed neither the science issue nor the offensiveness of public smoking issue, resorting instead to the old ad hominem attack: "I suggest the only credibility we are supposed to have lost is caused by Siegel and Chapman." [Dr. Simon Chapman was quoted in the article as also opposing most broad outdoor smoking bans because they are not justified based on scientific evidence of a severe and unavoidable public health hazard.]

The title of this particular discussion forum message had nothing to do with the substantive topic at hand. Instead, it was simply: "Michael Siegel, again."

The Rest of the Story

Let's take these one at a time.

Argument #1: Completely banning smoking outdoors is justified because like public urination, defecation, nudity, sex, heroin injection, and cocaine snorting, it is intrusive, corrupting of minors, and/or offensive.

One could certainly argue that outdoor smoking is intrusive; however, in most situations, the smoke can be easily avoided. At worst, the intrusion is minimal, with only a few seconds of exposure necessary to get out of the way or past the smoker. Absent the health effects, the intrusiveness argument could also be made about wearing perfume or having bad body odor. Is this where we really want to go? Absent any substantial public health hazard, I do not see how banning smoking completely is necessary, narrowly enough tailored an intervention, or justified.

The argument that smoking needs to be banned because it is corrupting of minors or offensive hardly deserves comment. Smoking is a health hazard - plain and simple. It is not, and should not be considered an offensive public behavior in the absence of the creation of a significant health hazard.

The advocate is correct that it is more than simply protection of the public's health and safety which justifies the use of the state's police power to ban certain outdoor behavior. Another concern is protection of the public morals. Banning outdoor sex, nudity, defecation, urination, and illicit drug use all fit under this category of measures deemed necessary to protect public morals.

By making this analogy, the advocate is suggesting that public smoking fits into the same category of behaviors that are morally offensive.

And to be honest, that's what I really think this all comes down to. When you strip away the bogus health arguments (that all it takes is a brief exposure for someone to keel over from a heart attack or to wind up getting heart disease or cancer), what you're left with is the argument that public smoking is morally offensive and that the state's police power needs to be invoked to protect the public morals.

By even comparing public smoking to outdoor urination, sex, nudity, and the like, the advocates and groups offering this argument are, I think, exposing exactly how it is that they perceive outdoor smoking. It is offensive to them and that's apparently the primary reason why banning it completely is justified.

Argument #2: Levels of tobacco smoke outdoors can be very high.

While it is true that outdoor levels of secondhand smoke can potentially be high under certain conditions, one must remember that exposure is dependent upon two factors, not one. Exposure is dependent upon: (1) the level [concentration] of the smoke; and (2) the duration of exposure to the smoke.

No matter how high the concentration of smoke around a group of smokers might be, if it is an outdoor area that is open and which people can move freely about, they are able to avoid prolonged exposure and the dose they receive will not be high.

The advocates advancing this argument are creating a straw man argument: they are arguing that the potential for smoke to be heavily concentrated outdoors in some conditions justifies banning smoking under all conditions. But that's not the issue at hand.

Neither I nor Dr. Chapman has argued that outdoor smoking should not be regulated in environments in which people are fixed and cannot move freely about to avoid the smoke exposure. When I'm watching the Red Sox lose in Fenway Park, of course I think it is justified to ban smoking in the Park. If I'm sitting in my seat, there's no way for me to avoid the smoke. I'm in a fixed, assigned seat and there's nowhere to go.

But if I'm walking to my car and someone is smoking in the parking lot, I can easily avoid any significant exposure to the smoke.

Banning smoking in Fenway Park is justified. But banning it in all sidewalks, streets, parking lots, and everywhere else outdoors is not. And that's what this discussion is about. That's the policy that Calabasas has enacted and which Belmont has proposed. That was the impetus for the newspaper article and that is the criticism to which my comments relate.

Argument #3: Dr. Siegel is at it again. He's hurting our credibility.

This is probably the strongest of the three arguments, because at least it's half right. Yes, I am at it again. And I will continue to be at it as long as I feel the need to speak out for what I believe, to tell the truth where I think it needs to be told, to say the difficult things that need to be said to preserve (if it's not too late) the integrity of the tobacco control movement, and to demand that we are justified in our calls for public policy changes.

As far as hurting the credibility of the movement, I'll let the public be the judge of that. But I would submit that someone who is willing to point out an absurd claim when he sees one (e.g., 30 minutes of secondhand smoke increases your risk of heart disease, as the Surgeon General has implied) has a lot more credibility than someone who is so biased that he or she can only see one side of any issue and for whom the anti-smoking groups can never be wrong, no matter how absurd the claims may be.

It's interesting, because it has become clear to me that the ad hominem attacks against me always heat up whenever it is that I make my strongest arguments. It's as if advocates are able to sense when what I'm arguing is really striking a chord with the public and they reflexively swing into attack mode, unable to respond effectively in a substantive manner.

Thus, the issue becomes not whether or not broad outdoor smoking bans are justified, but Michael Siegel and his antics. That tobacco industry stooge. That right-to-smoke advocate who has been duped by tobacco industry propaganda. That tobacco sympathizer who, once upon a time, did some very good work.

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