Monday, February 20, 2006

CHALLENGING DOGMA: Post #9 - The Agenda of All Anti-Smoking Groups is a Noble One

One of the things that I always assumed during my early years in the tobacco control movement was that the agenda of anti-smoking organizations is always a noble one, and that any differences that I might ever have with these groups were about strategy, but not about the ultimate goal, which was a common one shared by all tobacco control groups.

The tobacco control community, I had been led to believe, consisted of organizations which all shared a common agenda, which was focused solely on the desire to reduce tobacco-related morbidity and mortality. Sure, from time to time, I would have disagreements about the way some groups were going about trying to achieve this goal, but these were just strategic or tactical issues. We needed to put these differences aside and work together since our purposes were, after all, the same.

This is a point that has been emphasized to me, over and over again, especially during the past months when I have been willing to write about my disagreements with the actions of a number of tobacco control groups. Usually, it has taken the form of advocates questioning my criticism of anti-smoking groups, not because of any fallacy in my argumentation, but because it is "wrong" and "counter-productive" to criticize since we are all working "for the same goals."

The Rest of the Story

It has become clear to me over the past few weeks that, in fact, we are not all working for the same goals, and that the agenda of all anti-smoking groups is not necessarily a noble one.

Most apparent is that a number of anti-smoking groups seem to be driven by a desire to punish smokers, to make their lives as miserable as possible, and to teach them a lesson for the damage they have caused to nonsmokers.

And they are doing this in the name of protecting health. But the justification behind their positions is so flimsy that it makes it clear, to me at least, that health is just part of the concerns that are motivating these actions.

Take Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), for example. In testimony before the Calabasas City Council, ASH supported the city's ban on smoking almost anywhere in the city, calling it a "comprehensive" law that would make Calabasas "the first truly smokefree city."

It based its support for this draconian law based not on any sound scientific data, but largely upon its conviction that secondhand smoke exposure is so "annoying and irritating to most people" and that "it is inappropriate to expose young children to that behavior [smoking] as a norm."

Interestingly, despite ASH's conviction that "no person should be involuntarily and unnecessarily exposed to any level, however low, of known cancer-causing substances," ASH apparently doesn't have any problem with exposing loads of children to these cancer-causing substances in a crowded open-air shopping mall, which the Calabasas law allows.

And apparently, you can become a truly smokefree city even if you allow kids to have to breathe in tobacco smoke while shopping at Gymboree, Johnny Rockets, Barnes & Noble, and M. Fredric kids (all are stores in the exempt Calabasas Commons shopping mall).

I think you have to question the sincerity of ASH's testimony just a little bit, given this complete contradiction, which basically invalidates its entire argument. If no person should be involuntarily exposed to any level of carcinogens, then how can ASH justify testifying in support of a law that allows for smoking at a crowded shopping mall?

And if it is that important for kids not to see smokers in public, how could ASH explain its support for a law that will most certainly result in great increases in smoking at one of the most crowded places where youths congregate in the city?

Really - it is clear to me that something else is going on here, other than an incredibly sincere concern for the possiblity that the children of Calabasas might be exposed to small amounts of secondhand smoke.

What I think is going on (and this is just my opinion) is that ASH really wants to rub smokers' faces in the dirt. I think they want to punish smokers by making their lives as miserable as possible. I think they are boasting about the draconian restrictions on smoking in Calabasas because it is a kind of payback for what they view as the damage that smokers have done to nonsmokers.

There's just no other possible way I could explain how ASH could support such an ordinance based on the arguments that ASH provides. And the fact that ASH is going so far out of its way to promote this ordinance and to boast about its support for it, and about the law's passage. And how ASH is going so far out of its way, despite its numerable press releases about this issue, not to mention the fact that the ordinance allows smoking at every shopping mall in the city.

Add to that the arguments that ASH is using. Apparently, they feel that seeing smokers in public is a moral affront, as they directly compare public smoking to public spitting, gambling, playing boom boxes, and leaving a dog’s droppings behind. I really think they view smokers as a complete public nuisance. And they appear to simply not want people to have to see smokers. They are defining the problem in such a way that it is not the smoke, but the smoker, that is offensive.

Take, for another example, the efforts of ASH as well as a number of other anti-smoking groups to promote policies that would eliminate smokers from the workforce. Can there really be a serious public health justification behind such policies? Or are these policies really just a way to punish smokers for what is viewed as their crimes against nonsmokers by exposing them to their smoke?

I have already mentioned the argument, being advanced by some anti-smoking groups, that smokers are not deserving of employment because residue they carry on their clothes or hair, or their exhaled breath (even if they haven't smoked for hours) is a severe health hazard. That argument itself pretty much seems to indicate, I think, that this has left the realm of public health and evidence-based public policy, and become an all-out effort to punish smokers and make them pay for their "sins" of exposing nonsmokers to their smoke.

I don't question the fact that such extremely sensitive individuals exist, but there are appropriate and effective ways of dealing with problems like this short of removing all smokers from the workplace.

And so I have come to realize that the agenda of all anti-smoking group is not necessarily a noble one. And I have come to this realization:

I do not agree with the agenda of some anti-smoking groups: namely, those which are promoting non-science-based bans on smoking in non-enclosed outdoors places where exposure to secondhand smoke is transient and avoidable and those which are promoting employment discrimination against smokers.

I do not agree with the goal of punishing smokers and making them pay for damages that may have been suffered by nonsmokers.

I reject the idea that smokers are a moral affront, a nuisance, something which we cannot allow our children to see.

I feel compelled, then, to let it be known that I reject certain aspects of the agenda that are being promoted by a number of anti-smoking groups, and I do not stand together with these groups in working towards a common goal. Not if that goal is to punish smokers, and the means to achieve that goal is to toss all science and evidence-based policy analysis aside. I just refuse to do that.

The rest of the story is that I do not believe that the agenda of all anti-smoking groups is a noble one. This is not just a strategic difference in opinion regarding the best way to get to where we are all trying to go. I am not trying to go where some of these groups are. I am going to pursue a different path, and I'm going to do my best to persuade my collagues to take that different road.

Yes, this goes against the dogma of the movement, and the dogma with which I was indoctrinated. But at some point, you have to be willing to stand for what you think is right. And I reject the notion that it is improper for me to criticize groups, since we're all working towards the same ends.

With respect to a number of these groups, we're not working towards the same ends, and I'll continue to speak out against the agenda that these groups are pursuing because I simply don't think it is an appropriate one.

I may not be successful in convincing my colleagues to reject these aspects of the anti-smoking agenda, but it won't be for lack of trying, and I won't walk off the field with there being any doubt that I publicly rejected these disturbing aspects of the anti-smoking agenda. At very least, I'll be able to say that I left it all on the field.

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