by Heidi Stevenson, Editor Gaia Health
Over the last 60 years, smokers have been pushed to the edges of society, marginalized as self-destructive and, worse, detrimental to the health and welfare of everyone else. While it’s certainly true that smoking is unhealthy, is it really up to the rest of society to exert pressure to make them conform? Is their exhaled smoke really so bad that they should be pressed into the throes of withdrawal? Ultimately, who really benefits?
Let me clarify my own status in this picture. I’m a former smoker, one who has been smoke-free for a dozen years and has no residual desire to take it up again. I don’t like to be in the presence of smoking and don’t allow it in my home. Nonetheless, I question the fervour against smokers and wondered at the truth behind the stories we’re told.
The bending point came on seeing supposedly serious reports claiming that second-hand smoke was actually worse than smoking itself. That simply begged credulity. An attenuated version of what the smoker takes in being claimed as worse—especially when the smoker is also subject to second-hand smoke on top of the first-hand variety—lacks any sort of basis in reality.
The breaking point came on seeing reports that “third-hand” smoke is harmful. That refers to the residual smell of smoke on clothing and such, plus the lingering remnants of smoke long after the cigarette has been put out.
No serious attempts to prove there’s an association between third-hand smoke and health have been made, though innuendo to that effect is attempted. Nonetheless, a campaign of claims that there is no safe level has been introduced. That simply beggars belief—and flies in the face of a basic toxicology fact: The dose makes the poison. Virtually any substance is poisonous at high enough levels, and virtually any substance is harmless, and even therapeutic, at low enough levels. If tobacco breaks this rule, then it should certainly be documented, if not also explained.
Today’s Tobacco and Today’s Anti-Tobacco Campaign
People start to smoke because they get pleasure from it. It satisfies something in them. However, we need to understand that tobacco as it’s usually used today bears little resemblance to what the plant produces. Tobacco corporations have modified the final product so that it’s far more addictive and far more dangerous than what native Americans smoked. This cynical manipulation is a direct result of the capitalist drive for profits. There is no other reason for it.
Sadly, a large number of people have become addicted to tobacco in its current manipulated form, and tobacco corporations should be forced to pay for it.
That, of course, doesn’t happen. And that turns the concept of wanting to stop tobacco smoking on its ear. If ending smoking were truly the goal, then steps to prevent the exploitation of tobacco by corporate interests would be the focus. That, though, is not the situation.
The tobacco corporations are not running this show any longer. The new Big Bad Boys have pushed them to the edges. Back in the 50s through the 80s, the focus was on the tobacco companies and their manipulations. Now, though, it’s on the smokers and businesses like pubs where smoking is, or more accurately was, enjoyed. They’re being castigated and treated as outsiders, even to the point of criminalizing them. That’s a major shift, turning the victims and the businesses they patronize into targets.
So, who are the big boys, if the tobacco corporations aren’t? One need only look to the money trail. It’s Big Pharma, which is now pushing drugs and other products as treatments for tobacco addiction. Smoking cessation products add up to big money, but the very best—and probably the only one that’s reasonably effective and safe—is being attacked. In some places, it’s even banned, in spite of being safer than any smoking cessation product produced by Big Pharma.
The Smoking Science
Smoking is bad for you. That’s well established. Whether it’s as bad as is claimed is open to question, but the basic fact that smoking tobacco is harmful is pretty much open and shut. However, smoking is not being attacked for that reason now. It’s being attacked because the smoker is now claimed to be a danger to everyone else. Just how true is that?
If you read mainstream media, the impression is that it’s an open-and-shut case. Second-hand smoke is now considered as bad as smoking, and some even claim it’s worse. And now, even third-hand smoke is under attack.
What’s missing the most in all of this is any sense of proportion. The basic fact of toxicology, that it’s the dose that makes the poison seems to have gone missing in this issue. Comparisons with other harmful things are not considered. And the benefits of tobacco are also not put into the picture.
Third Hand Smoke
We’ll start with third-hand smoke. The concept itself came on the scene in early 2009 when a report in the journal Paediatrics, titled “Beliefs About the Health Effects of ‘Third hand” Smoke and Home Smoking Bans” first used the term. It claimed that even tiny amounts of tobacco smoke’s constituents are neurotoxic. However, the report was not a study of whether that’s true. It merely cited one study that purports to show it, and that one studied the effects of second-hand smoke on children’s cognitive abilities.
The first sentence in the report states, “There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.” That is, as already explained, pure nonsense, based on the primary law of toxicology. It would be reasonable to stop reading the study at that point. Nonetheless, a bit more information should dissuade any thought that there’s legitimacy to the report.
The focus of the third-hand smoke report was on attitudes of smokers towards third-hand smoke. Shock of shocks, they found that a large percentage of smokers were unaware of a connection between third-hand smoke and health risks! The chances that they’d have ever heard the term third-hand smoke were approximately nil. They found the great majority (82%) of those with strict smoking bans in their homes agreed that third-hand smoke is harmful, in spite of it almost certainly being the first time they’d even heard the term third-hand smoke. If the report carries any meaning, it shows that asking such questions is utterly meaningless.
Now, we’ll go back to the study cited in the Paediatrics report. It operates on innuendo. It doesn’t consider that children exposed to second-hand smoke in the home are almost certainly the same ones as those exposed to third-hand smoke.
Titled “Exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke and Cognitive Abilities among U.S. Children and Adolescents”, it was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in January 2005.
The authors purpose is to show that there’s a connection between poorer cognitive skills in children exposed to third hand smoke in the home than in those who aren’t. There are gaping flaws in the study:
- It fails to demonstrate how children might have been exposed to third-hand smoke in the home without also being directly exposed to second-hand smoke.
- It doesn’t consider that these same children were also likely to have been exposed to the effects of their mothers’ smoking while they were in the womb. In fact, the study obscured the finding that accounting for prenatal exposure eliminated or greatly reduced differences in results.
- It doesn’t consider whether their parents cognitive skills were lower, thus affecting, either by environment or by heredity, their children’s abilities.
This is the referenced study that supposedly shows the negative cognitive effects of second-hand smoke on children, and was cited to show that even small exposures are harmful.
Royal College of Physicians
The March 2010 report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), “Passive smoking and children” was funded by Cancer Research UK, which is heavily funded by Big Pharma—and Big Pharma makes Big Money on smoking cessation products.
The RCP did a meta-study. Without getting deeply involved in the topic, it must be noted that a great deal of bias exists in most meta studies. They combine individual studies and try to derive conclusions from them. It sounds good, but there are significant confounders involved. The most obvious is bias. Studies are included or not based largely on whether the researchers want them. While it’s possible for a meta-study to be honest, when the funding comes from a biased source, then the choices of which studies to include may be questionable. In any case, not including all known studies means that some data is not utilized.
The study notes that the death rates from the conditions it addressed tend to be higher in people of lower socio-economic classes, and that smoking is higher in these groups. In their discussion of confounders, they ignored the issue of housing quality, in particular mould. This is a significant health issue for the same conditions: lung diseases. Without factoring that in, the results showing harm from smoking may have little meaning.
Health Benefits of Smoking?
We keep hearing about all the harms that tobacco can do, but what about its benefits? You didn’t know there were any? In fact, there are:
- Smoking protects against Parkinson’s disease, and the benefit fades if a smoker quits.
- After cardiac angioplasty, smokers’ arteries are less likely to become occluded again.
- Nicotine may kill tuberculosis bacteria.
- Nicotine eases symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
- Smoking may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Today, many conditions that are commonly associated with smoking had been shown in earlier studies to benefit from it. To accept either earlier or later studies is likely one of bias. Earlier studies tended to be associated with tobacco corporation money. Newer studies tend to be associated with Big Pharma money.
Should a non-smoker start smoking? Of course not. However, since we’ve seen the dishonesty in studies funded directly or indirectly by Big Pharma, we should be questioning the validity of most of the anti-smoking pseudo-science that’s out there. Certainly we’re likely to find that smoking is harmful, but the question should be put in focus. If it’s bad, just how bad? What benefits does smoking have? Should some people be encouraged to smoke to gain the benefits, or do the negative effects outweigh them? We’ll never find out with the current approach.
The Big Pharma Effect
We all know about how tobacco corporations skewed the research on smoking for years. It’s fairly well accepted that money talked and was the true author behind much of the research and public relations around smoking. Now, though, we haven’t reached a balance. Not only smoking, but smokers are vilified. They’re marginalized and, more and more, treated as if there’s no excuse for not being able or willing to quit.
The fact that they’ve been given an addiction that people who’ve gotten through heroin addiction often can’t beat—and that the severity of the addiction is a direct result of the subtle alteration of tobacco by the manufacturers, alterations that continue to exist—is now used to press Big Pharma’s treatments. The attitude of doctors is to push the tobacco addict into using some sort of smoking cessation product produced by Big Pharma.
Do they ever suggest using e-cigarettes, which appear to be the safest alternative and are unlikely to be annoying to anyone but the most self-righteous? That virtually never happens. In fact, there are now strong efforts to ban e-cigs! If stopping smoking and improving the health of smokers and people in their vicinity were the real goal, why would e-cigs be marginalized along with the smokers? Wouldn’t they be encouraged as, at least, an improvement for everyone?
The fact is that smoking cessation products are Big Biz for Big Pharma. They produce nicotine patches, such as Nicorette, Commit, and Nicotrol. They produce drugs like Zyban and Chantix, two of the most insidious on the prescription market. How effective are they? Not very. Of course, that suits the manufacturers just fine. After all, that means the customers must go back again and again … and yet again. Ka ching!
The purpose of this article is not to prove that smoking, or even second-hand smoke, is harmless. It’s to point out that there’s no sense of balance, and very little reasonableness in the way the issue is promoted. Basic facts, like the point that the degree of exposure is significant, are ignored. If even a hint of harm from tobacco can be implied at any dose and not even proven, then it’s flaunted as fact and used to flog smokers, to turn them into societal pariahs. To push smokers into using Big Pharma’s smoking cessation products, preferably for life.
The number of people who are harmed by alcohol is far greater. How many become diabetic, go blind, and lose limbs because of fructose-sweetened soda pop? Recent studies show that antibiotics cause permanent damage to the gastrointestinal biota and lead to cancer. And then, of course, there’s the devastation being wrought by one in a hundred children becoming autistic. Frankly, the damage done by second-hand smoke pales in comparison to these travesties. Yet, the causes behind them, Big Pharma and Agribusiness, aren’t turned into pariahs.
What’s obvious is that health is not the real goal. It’s used as a carrot or stick to accomplish another goal. And that goal is to promote the profits of Big Pharma.
Where’s Socialism in All This?
So, why did I choose to write about this topic for a socialist publication? It’s a bit in-your-face. Socialists generally support the greater good, what’s best for everyone, rather than the promotion of each person out for him- or herself. There is also the great respect for science as a determiner of reality.
I concur with both goals. Sadly, though, I see both twisted far too often, and banning smoking is a prime example.
First, the idea that everyone should enjoy the best possible health is certainly admirable. But at what cost? Should good health be forced on people who, for whatever reason, do unhealthy things? Certainly, there’s an argument that their misbehaviour is costly to the people as a whole. Even so, does that trump the individual’s autonomy? Does that individual not have the right to engage in self-destructive behaviour? I say yes, most assuredly so.
If socialism is truly best, then surely it can try to find the real reasons behind a person’s self-destructive behaviour, rather than try to coerce it. Historically, and probably even more so today, we’ve seen and are seeing the results of attempting to coerce behaviour that we, as a whole, believe to be positive. It doesn’t work. It ignores the needs of the individual.
But what about the rights of bystanders to avoid the risks of smoke exposure? That’s a real concern. People do have the right not to be harmed by another’s vices. It’s never going to be easy to come to a reasonable balance. First, though, we must attempt to find the truth about risks—and that, frankly, has never been done in the case of second-hand smoke. (I won’t insult anyone with the suggestion that there’s one whit of legitimacy to the concept of third-hand smoke.) Certainly, second-hand smoke is irritating. In confined places, whatever harm it can produce is certainly more prominent than in open areas. If we hope to ever come to a reasonable solution, then we must have honest research to find the truth.
The sad story, though, is that we don’t have honest research—so we don’t know the whole truth about second-hand smoke, whether we need to avoid it or should better view it as irritating, but not particularly dangerous.
Science is a wonderful tool. It can, though, be corrupted. I think that has been clearly shown here. The science on tobacco was corrupted by Big Tobacco for decades. Even now, Big Tobacco is given the freedom to escape from its depradations on humanity. That they’re allowed to evade responsibility for corrupting tobacco by making it more addictive and more harmful is a crime—one that should be punishable by ending their corporate existence.
But that crime is no worse than the one now being promulgated by Big Pharma.
Both Big Tobacco and Big Pharma use and corrupt science for their own ends. Sadly, the high regard in which science is held by so
many socialists who think of themselves as rational and caring has also led them astray. The simple stamp of the term science on a publication or article causes blinders to be worn.
Pseudo-science reports are quoted as if they were gospel. In terms of smoking, people quote a study’s conclusions without question. If that’s what was written, then it must be true. After all, it’s science, isn’t it?
Far too often, the answer is no, it isn’t. The conclusion is based on pseudo-science masquerading as the real thing, bought and paid for by corporate interests. Socialists must come to terms with the fact that their primary tool can be, and often is, corrupted.
To assume the veracity of any study in the current capitalist climate is foolhardy. To follow these pseudo-science dictates merely puts one back into the same system that finances pseudo studies on tobacco, not to mention a host of other issues, including pharmaceutical drugs, medical treatments, environmental damage, nuclear power, and many others that aren’t in my particular bailiwick.
True socialists love the personal freedom that socialism can bring—the freedom not to worry about obtaining education, health care, good food, clean water, good work or any of our other needs. True socialists want their science to be pure, and understand that it can’t be as long as corporations are in control.
And we must never, ever, get self-righteous or allow the craven lust for profits to manipulate science, and thereby us, so that we vilify the victims and make the wrong choices in resolving problems—as seems clear is happening now to smokers.
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- “Exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke and Cognitive Abilities among U.S. Children and Adolescents“, Yolton, K et al, Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2005, DOI: 10.1289/ehp.7210, bit.ly: http://1.usa.gov/yG8wX4
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- “Alzheimer’s Disease Is Associated with Nonsmoking“, Bibliography of journal studies, http://www.forces.org/evidence/carol/carol16.htm
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