Proposed Wilmette Smoking Ban Ignores Latest Medical Research

Published November 11, 2003

My hometown of Wilmette, Illinois is considering an ordinance that would ban smoking in nearly all public places and restaurants. I am not a smoker myself, but I believe such a ban would be bad public policy. One reason is that the latest medical research shows secondhand smoke is not nearly the public health risk that advocacy groups claim it is.

Two epidemiologists, James Enstrom at UCLA and Geoffrey Kabat at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, recently analyzed data collected by the American Cancer Society from more than 100,000 Californians from 1959 through 1997. Their study was reported in the May 12, 2003 issue of the British Medical Journal. The focus of the analysis wa the 35,000 nonsmoking spouses of smokers.

“The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality,” the researchers wrote, although they do not rule out a small effect. “The association between tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.”

Enstrom and Kabat confirmed that smoking is indeed harmful to the smoker. However, the harmful effects do not extend to persons exposed only to secondhand smoke.

“It is generally considered that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke is roughly equivalent to smoking one cigarette per day,” according to Enstrom and Kabat. “If so, a small increase in lung cancer is possible, but the commonly reported 30 percent increase in heart disease risk–the purported cause of almost all the deaths attributed to secondhand smoke–is highly implausible.”

While secondhand smoke may not be significantly harmful to health, it is an annoyance to some. But there are a lot of annoyances in this world–aircraft noise, discarded chewing gum, fast food, unwanted e-mail, and allergies to peanuts, to mention a few. Generally, such annoyances do not demand government involvement.

Many annoyances can be handled just by informing the offender that the behavior is making others uncomfortable. My favorite approach is to offer the smoker a free dessert if he or she stops smoking. I call it my let-them-eat-cake strategy. It depends on the good will of the smoker. I like to think that Wilmette residents are considerate and will respond in a positive way to a request.

Jim Johnston is an economist and director and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].

EDITOR: The British Medical Journal article can be retrieved by going to