Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tobacco Industry Using Aggressive Street and Sidewalk Smoking Bans to Prevent Indoor Smoking Bans, Including Those in Bars and Restaurants

An enlightening article by Dr. Simon Chapman in the current issue of Tobacco Control presents the surprising news that Japan Tobacco is supporting strict and aggressive street smoking bans (see: Chapman S. Japanese street smoking bans: a Japan Tobacco foil to prevent clean indoor air policy? Tobacco Control 2009; 18:419).

The Rest of the Story

At first blush, it might seem shocking that a tobacco company would support such draconian smoking bans. But on closer examination, it turns out that the tobacco industry's support for these measures in Japan is actually a foil as Chapman calls it - an attempt to re-frame the issue so that attention is diverted from efforts to ban smoking indoors: in workplaces, including bars and restaurants.

As the article explains: "Senior Japan Tobacco representatives have been enthusiastic supporters of the street smoking bans, while maintaining staunch opposition to indoor smoking bans. Dr Yumiko Mochizuki of Japan’s National Cancer Centre suggests that the industry’s intense support of the policy may suggest it sees street bans as an important foil to hold off indoor bans. Because of the smaller number of cumulative "smoking hours" available, the number of cigarettes forgone because of street smoking bans would be incomparably smaller than would be caused by indoor workplace bans, including those in bars and restaurants. By supporting street bans, Japan Tobacco would calculate that it could ride the popular wave of Japanese anti-litter sentiment, basking in civic-minded corporate social responsibility. In doing so, it helps contribute to the continuing framing of public smoking as an issue of manners and consideration, cleanliness and safety, while its role in chronic disease is sidelined. Mochizuki argues that the Japanese model may well be being promoted as the way to go elsewhere in the often crowded cities of Asia."

This story should give anti-tobacco advocates in the U.S. some pause. I have argued that the ever-increasingly aggressive attempts to ban smoking almost everywhere - including the wide-open outdoors - is going to harm our efforts to ban smoking in workplaces where people actually need the protection. For one thing, it diverts attention from chronic exposure to secondhand smoke and puts the sole focus on acute, even fleeting exposures. Second, it casts us as anti-smoking zealots who are trying to eliminate all public smoking. Third, it takes us away from a strong scientific base. Fourth, it risks losing our credibility by asking the public to accept increasingly hysterical claims.

When you see tobacco companies starting to support a policy, you had better seriously re-examine your support for those policies. If the tobacco industry truly felt that street smoking bans would enhance the overall goal of protecting people from secondhand smoke, it would certainly not support these measures. Perhaps the industry is banking on a backlash and/or on a diversion of attention.

My own prediction is that the movement's new obsession with trying to extend smoking bans to the outdoors, including parks, streets, and sidewalks is going to backfire by diverting attention away from the need for bans on smoking in the workplace and from the effort to extend protection to all workers in bars, restaurants, and casinos. That's where our attention should be -- not on trying to protect fleeting exposure from any whiff of smoke in a public park, street, or sidewalk.

Dr. Chapman's commentary helps to elucidate why my op-ed in the New York Daily News was so important. Exaggerated health claims and the support of draconian policies that are not based on scientific evidence are hurting, not helping the smoke-free cause.

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