Why debunking junk tobacco science matters

In the past year alarmist studies about “thirdhand smoke,” the particles left behind from tobacco combustion, have proliferated. There’s no evidence such residuals are actually causing cancer but that hasn’t stopped anti-smoking activists and journalists from running with the story. Michael Siegel has recently spotted a couple ways this research has been abused to discriminate against smokers. First there’s the “sniff test” policy now in place at Kimball Physics, a technology company in New Hampshire:

No tobacco-residuals emitting person, article of clothing, or other object is allowed inside any Kimball Physics building. This restriction also applies to anyone or anything emitting characteristic tobacco odors. Anyone who has used a tobacco product within the previous two hours is automatically to be turned away, unless measures have been taken such that residuals-sensitive persons are not exposed. The determining factor, regarding allowable residuals levels and/or exposure durations, is whether anyone is either significantly bothered, or even worse, made ill.

This is an absurd policy and it should come as no surprise that the person who created it is a board member of the extremist anti-tobacco group Action on Smoking and Health. Nonetheless it creates a precedent that less fanatical employers might decide to follow.

Speaking of ASH, Siegel also catches them advocating bans on smokers adopting or fostering children. From ASH’s press release:

Midlothian Council in the U.K. is just the latest entity to prohibit smokers from adopting or providing foster care for children, a step Portsmouth, Hants, in England and other jurisdictions took several years ago, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, Executive Director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). Anyone wanting to care for a child under the age of five will be required not to have smoked for at least six months, even if they only smoke outdoors. […]

… thirdhand tobacco smoke, what the New York Times called “the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to smokers’ hair and clothing,” has just been reported by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to combine with a common indoor air pollutant to form very potent cancer causing substances. This, the researchers say, places children at serious risk, even if parents smoke only outside the home, because they carry the residues inside with them.

I criticized that Times article when it came out last year for taking such a credulous approach to the “thirdhand smoke” study it covered, buying into the researchers’ hype despite the fact that the study consisted of nothing but a phone survey. At the time the author couldn’t have known that her words and the reputation of the paper would be used to deny children foster care, but that’s how low the anti-smoking movement has sunk. Reporters need to realize that today’s anti-tobacco researchers should be treated with just as much skepticism as the Big Tobacco-funded scientists of the pre-Master Settlement days.


Recent reading: A trio of tobacco books

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading related to tobacco policy in preparation for some upcoming writing projects…

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, Christopher Snowdon — I link to Chris’ blog of the same name frequently here. He’s one of the best critics of paternalist excesses writing today and one of the few journalists exposing the shoddy science put out by many anti-tobacco researchers. His book-length review of the anti-smoking movement goes back all the way to Columbus and is essential for putting the current movement in historical context. His coverage of secondhand smoke and bibliography of ETS papers is also very valuable. Highly recommended and lively written.

Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, Richard Kluger — A 700+ page doorstop of a book chronicling the history of the American cigarette business. Though a little dated by its publication prior to the Master Settlement Agreement, the book presents a remarkably balanced view of the players involved. Though by no means a tobacco apologist, Kluger manages to portray Big Tobacco executives with enough sympathy to make them human and sometimes admirable businessmen working in an embattled industry. Reformers, too, are shown in a balanced light. (Only John Banzhaf appears completely without redeeming qualities; he manages to come off as an ass no matter who is profiling him.)

Kluger fairly describes the progress of science, from when tobacco companies could legitimately claim skepticism of cigarettes’ health effects to when their denials became absurd. Similar scrutiny is given to the overblown claims of secondhand smoke by their opposition. In the final pages he even comes close to predicting the MSA, though in the details he fails to guess how the tobacco companies would use it to raise prices and create a legally protected cartel.

Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, Gene M. Heyman — The title is a bit off-putting, suggesting that the book accuses addicts of choosing to have their disorder. That’s inaccurate. Heyman, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School, is actually offering an economic model of addiction, explaining substance abuse in terms of individual decisions and the way they can be distorted by addictive substances. Specifically, addictive substances tend to offer immediate benefits and long-term costs (exacerbated by withdrawal symptoms), to induce intoxication, and to undermine the value of more productive activities, all making habitual use hard to break.

Heyman is primarily concerned with illegal drugs but cigarettes do get a mention as a partial exception to the pattern. They don’t intoxicate the user and don’t interfere too much with other valuable activities, making the choice to smoke in any given situation very easy. This suggests that a useful approach to treating cigarette addiction would be to develop safer products that fill the same niche. This perspective is of special interest now given the development of e-cigarettes and research suggesting that nicotine alone can only partially explain cigarette addiction.


Aroma-Schutz durch rauchfreien Raum

Jim Romenesko at Starbucks Gossip links to a blog dedicated to replacing the aroma of tobacco smoke outside of Starbucks stores with the sweet smell of self-righteousness:

A blog established to encourage Starbucks (SBUX) to stop supporting smoking at their stores. SBUX, where it is legal, allows smoking outside of their stores. Not a very “socially conscious” policy. Not to mention, how does a business so closely tied to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure (breast cancer), reconcile allowing smoking at their stores?

Yikes, giving people a place to smoke, even if that place is outside, now detracts from a business’s social consciousness? And wanting to find cures for cancer now requires taking control over customers’ personal behavior? Obviously Starbucks is a private business and if they decide to ban smoking outside their stores they have every right to do so, but:

1) It might be more reasonable to ban it only in some stores, such as those with small urban storefronts. Suburban stores with large patios could easily accommodate smokers and non-smokers.

2) A guy smoking a cigarette in open air isn’t going to give anybody cancer. He might be annoying but so is the guy with the portable radio, the guy who hasn’t bathed in three days, and the friends chatting too loudly about their sex lives. In a civil society we learn when to tolerate such things and when to ask the store to intervene and it’s not clear that a chain-wide ban is needed to deal with them. In any case, allowing people to smoke outside where they do harm only to themselves is perfectly compatible with raising money for cancer research.

3) This blogger’s “campaign” is part of the trend to demonize smokers, portraying their behavior not just as unhealthy but as anti-social. This kind of thinking is what has led to extending legislated smoking bans from indoor spaces to places like beaches, golf courses, and public parks, where it’s absurd to claim there are any deleterious health effects from secondhand smoke. Starbucks might reasonably decide that forbidding smoking would be good for business but this would not put them on moral high ground.

4) Yes, it’s rude to light up next to other people without asking their permission but where else are smokers supposed to go? Now that they’ve been exiled from indoor businesses, even from tobacco shops in some jurisdictions, one can understand why they feel entitled to the outdoor spaces they have remaining.

5) Starbucks actually deserves great credit for their non-smoking policies. As I wrote about in 2006, they’ve been a pioneer in international markets for creating smokefree cafes in countries where these were predicted to fail. (The title of this post is a translation of the signs they posted in Austria explaining their policy: “aroma protection through a smoke-free space.”) They’ve probably helped change expectations for American cafes too. Given all this, it’s a bit spiteful to call them socially irresponsible for accommodating their smoking customers outside.

6) Sitting outside on a summer day with coffee and a cigar can be a wonderful experience. If you can find a place to do so where you won’t impose on other customers I highly recommend it.


The addict in chief?

Covering Obama’s signature of the misguided FDA tobacco bill, columnist Marie Cocco refers to the president as a “poster addict” for the anti-smoking movement:

Obama should be neither annoyed nor embarrassed that he keeps getting asked — about “once every month or so,” he says — about his struggle with cigarettes. He happens to be, hands-down, the best possible spokesman for the new FDA regulation. He should embrace the role.

The president should make public service announcements describing his addiction to cigarettes, which he began smoking as a teenager, and his so-far-failed efforts to completely snuff them out. Because after all, if such a smart, smooth and incontestably successful man is having such trouble quitting, what hope is there for the average American who has no worries about a prying press or the negative aura of a nicotine-stained image?

What hope indeed. Never mind the fact that there are about as many former smokers in the United States (45.9 million) as there are current smokers (45.4 million) according to the CDC. Somehow millions of Americans lacking Obama’s superpowers have managed to kick the habit. So what are we to make of Obama’s continued smoking? Cocco has one explanation:

Recovering his equanimity, the president explained that he’s “95 percent cured” from smoking, doesn’t smoke in front of his family and doesn’t light up every day. In short, he is a closet smoker — just like millions of Americans who are trying to quit, whose families are dismayed that they haven’t, and who risk public opprobrium when they admit they’re still tethered to tobacco.

This is the line political correctness, and perhaps his wife, forces Obama to go along with. Is it any wonder he gets snappy with reporters who keep asking him about his habit? As a famously cool and collected president, this constant portrayal as a weak-willed addict must be terribly grating.

But what if he’s not an addict? He’s reportedly not smoking every day despite having one of the most stressful jobs in the world. When he takes those occasional furtive smoke breaks, is he racked with guilt and shame? Or does he secretly enjoy it, a welcome respite from the demands of being president? Perhaps rather than being a model addict, he is a model of moderation, a man who has successfully reduced his consumption to a level he personally finds appropriate. I don’t pretend to know, but if having a smoke every few days does make him happy, in today’s environment he couldn’t possibly tell us.


Have cigarette, won’t travel

I was quoted yesterday in Christopher Elliott’s MSNBC travel column, which this week is about the travel industry’s crackdown on smokers. A non-smoker himself, Elliott argues that many anti-smoking policies now go too far in denying accommodation to nearly a quarter of the industry’s clients. It’s a solid piece and I’m glad he’s bringing attention to the issue.

One complaint: At the end he lumps all smokers together as addicts, unnecessarily stigmatizing them as helpless users of tobacco. Many of us smoke only occasionally and because we enjoy it, not because we’re dependent on nicotine. The constant association of smoking and addiction is one reason anti-smoking policies have spiraled out of control without any regard for smokers’ rights or preferences.

Smokers in exile
Taking the LEED on smoking bans


Smoking in Portland

It ain’t easy, but it is possible. Tomorrow Broadway Cigar is hosting its grand opening celebration, featuring cigar rolling demos, free beer (of the root variety), barbecue, a beer and spirits tasting, and raffles. I got to preview the space a few months ago and it’s very nice: flat screen TVs, free wi-fi, and big, comfy leather chairs. Check their site for details.


Pipe up!

In a May post last year about the future of smoking, I made a prediction:

Have we reached a tipping point that will inevitably make smoking socially unacceptable? Or will the increasingly untenable and bizarre claims made by anti-smoking groups propel the movement over the shark, allowing smokers and property rights defenders to push back?

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that, regardless of legal changes, old-fashioned pipe smoking will see a resurgence.

It’s too early to tell if I was right, but this piece in today’s Wall Street Journal is encouraging:

No one tracks how many young men and women are pipe smokers. But sales of pipe tobacco are rising again after years of decline, and many think young smokers are the reason. U.S. sales of pipe tobacco plummeted to 4.9 million pounds in 2006, from 52 million pounds in 1970, says Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America. Sales climbed to 5.3 million pounds in 2008. Pipe tobacco and smokeless tobacco sales are on the rise, offsetting over a decade of decreases in cigarette sales.

Pipe-smoking groups on social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have attracted thousands of members. Questions in the forums include: A bent or straight pipe? Does anyone have a favorite perique Louisiana tobacco blend? What is the consensus on corncob pipes?

Sykes Wilford, 28, burned his tongue when he first started smoking a pipe as a freshman at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. He now walks new smokers through the first puffs in his own store in Little River, S.C., to ensure they don’t meet the same fate. Although he mostly carries traditional pipes, he’s trying to bring a modern edge to the ancient habit. “For me to have an iPhone in one hand and a pipe in the other is not unusual,” he says.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see pipe smoking adopted into hipster culture. It would fit right in with other oddly archaic fashions like handlebar mustaches, vests, and jackets with epaulettes. And lighting up a pipe is an instant conversation starter, conferring status on the smoker. As Richard Hacker writes in the introduction to his Ultimate Pipe Book:

The pipe is a unique invention of Man that has combined his creativity with the elements of nature: fire, earth, water and smoke, all of which co-mingle with the sky. There is a certain mystique to it all, and, perhaps that is why, when you see someone smoking a pipe, you cannot help but think he knows something you do not.

Perhaps more importantly, smoking a pipe is less expensive than smoking cigars or cigarettes, and the tobacco is coming out relatively unscathed from the new SCHIP taxes.

[Via TMN.]

Ceci n’est pas une pipe
Pipe down!


Obama’s dirty secret

Jeff Steir of the American Council on Science and Health has a weird op/ed at The Politico today arguing that we should be talking more about Barack Obama’s former smoking habit:

Yes, Obama claims to have quit — and by doing so, he did reduce his risk of smoking-related disease. But the science tells us that it is naive to think that quitting after years of smoking returns you to the state of health of a never-smoker. In fact, after enough smoking, some health effects are irreversible. How long and how much one smokes determines the extent of health risk after quitting…

A 1998 study reported that the amount of fatty deposits in the carotid artery depended on total pack-years of tobacco exposure in a lifetime, not whether a patient currently smokes. A smoker’s excess risk of a stroke doesn’t return to that of nonsmokers until at least five, or as long as 20, years after quitting. It is possible that Obama would have to serve a hypothetical four smoke-free terms before his stroke risk returned to normal…

Just because he’s young, looks great and exercises doesn’t mean he’s completely healthy. And given what an important figure he is, to ignore his smoking history is to miss an educational opportunity.

The problem is that there’s currently no evidence that Obama is in bad health. And Americans, smokers and non-smokers alike, already overestimate the dangers of smoking; people smoke in spite of the risks, not because they are ignorant of them. So what “educational opportunity” are we missing by not discussing Obama’s use of tobacco? The lesson that you can be a lifelong smoker, quit when you want to, and grow up to be president? Unless Obama actually does suffer a stroke on the campaign trail, anti-smoking activists are probably better off not calling attention to the man’s longtime love of the devil weed.