Forgetting the Consequences of Totalitarianism

Published March 1, 2007

Many states are now considering a statewide ban on smoking in public places. These bans have widespread support from local policy makers and opinion leaders. But they are based on bad science and even worse public policy.

Last year Surgeon General Richard Carmona declared there is “no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.” For effect he added, “I would not allow anyone in my family to stand in a room with someone smoking.” His opinion was supposedly based on 20 years of scientific evidence, and it has been cited as gospel by smoking ban supporters.

But most of the major media that carried Carmona’s declaration failed to probe the scientific merits of his pronouncement … failing their readers in the process.

According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a white male in the U.S. (USWM) who smokes cigarettes has an 8 percent lifetime chance of dying from lung cancer. A USWM nonsmoker has a 1 percent chance of dying from lung cancer. Lung cancer accounts for 3 percent of deaths every year in the United States, and 2 percent worldwide.

Michael Siegel, a physician and tobacco control advocate who supports smoking bans, nevertheless criticized Carmona’s public statements for “falsely claiming or implying that brief, transient exposure to secondhand smoke raises the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and heart attack.”

Siegel pointed out on his blog, “It takes years of exposure to tobacco smoke even for a smoker to develop heart disease” and “It is also quite misleading to tell the public that a brief exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer.”

“There is certainly no evidence for this and the Surgeon General’s report itself draws no such conclusion,” Siegel wrote. “In fact the report makes it clear that most of the studies linking secondhand smoke and lung cancer studied nonsmokers with many years of intense exposure.”

But these nuances are lost in the public debate. As media and government repeat such frightening rhetoric to the general public, the public responds by incorporating this unfounded “science” into their understanding of the smoking ban debate.

Citizens are tricked into joining the persecution of tobacco users because they see cigarette smoke as a direct threat to their immediate health. Those who support smokers’ rights and the rights of tavern and bar owners are then castigated as shills for Big Tobacco or callous killers of innocent nonsmokers.

There seems to be no end to the anti-smoking campaign. You cannot smoke on the beach in California. In several states you cannot smoke in a car with children. Some states are even trying to take the fight into citizens’ homes.

For more than a decade, government health officials and elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels have conducted a siege against individual liberty and business property rights based upon scientific half-truths, innuendo, and statements like Carmona’s.

The political correctness has become so powerful that, internationally, pushing for a ban on smoking is seen as proof of enlightenment and worldly sophistication. And locally, a survey of registered voters conducted by Zogby International found 45 percent of Americans would support a federal law making cigarettes illegal in the next five to 10 years.

Where will we go from here? Will Big Tobacco be replaced by a black market and the gang violence that follows? Will there be a “War on Tobacco” just as ineffective as the current war on drugs, where the government spends billions and loses billions more in tax revenue?

In a free country, citizens are supposed to be treated with respect and given autonomy to run their lives. They won’t always make the right decisions, but the citizenry will remain vibrant, engaged, and responsible. But if government starts making hard decisions for us, it opens the floodgates to tyranny.

After all, once they’ve eradicated smoking, won’t they just find something else to outlaw?

Ralph W. Conner ([email protected]), a non-smoker, is the former village president of Maywood, Illinois (2001-2005), Conner currently serves as local legislation manager for The Heartland Institute.