Ban Anti-Tobacco Activists

Tuesday, March 17, 1998
By Terence Corcoran

New research by the World Health Organization (WHO) has failed to find any connection between exposure to second-hand smoke and lung cancer. News of the research has created a furor in Europe, where a brief summary of the study's findings appeared in the biennial report of the international Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of WHO.

The study, one of the most comprehensive ever undertaken, seems conclusive enough in itself. After 10 years of research involving 650 cases in seven European countries, a team of about 25 IARC scientists found the relative risk of lung cancer for spouses or co-workers of smokers to be non-existent. Anti-tobacco activists immediately denounced the report by mounting a tirade against the tobacco companies.

In Canada, the Ottawa Citizen contacted a couple of Canadian anti-tobacco crusaders who rushed to discredit the research. Neil Collishaw, a former Health Canada statistician who now works the anti-tobacco desk at WHO in Geneva, suggested that the research didn't exist. "This was certainly nothing done in my office." Then he added: "But if my organization . . .commissioned it, it's strange I haven't heard of it." Strange indeed, since the WHO study is a well-known project and one of the largest original investigations into second-hand smoke ever undertaken.

While Mr. Collishaw attempted to deny its existence, the Non-Smokers Rights Association in Ottawa -- essentially an arm of the federal government, given its funding -- trashed the WHO study as tobacco industry propaganda. David Sweanor, the NSRA's legal beagle in Ottawa, said the research "is simply not sound science. The only place we have seen this kind of garbage is from the tobacco industry."

When it comes to riding the coattails of junk science, of course, the anti-tobacco industry knows few peers. The second-hand smoke scare is the engine that's driving the global push to ban smoking in all public places, including restaurants, bars and clubs. By turning second-hand smoke into a public health hazard, the activists have been leveraging smoking bans all over the world, including Los Angeles and Vancouver. Toronto, after a failed attempt last year, is looking at the idea again.

Anything that undermines the health scare, therefore, is an obvious threat to the anti-smoking movement. Smoking bans already run into trouble wherever they're tried. Los Angeles is set to reverse its ban, Vancouver is looking doubtful, and Toronto's may never get off the ground. If there is no identifiable health effect from second-hand smoke, it will become more difficult to convince the public and enlist politicians in a campaign to turn smoking into an indictable offense.

The full IARC report on second-hand smoke will not be available until May, but it will be hard to ignore the conclusions. The relative risk of lung cancer for a spouse exposed to second-hand smoke was 1.16, with a 95-per-cent confidence interval ranging from -0.93 to 1.44. The confidence interval is such that exposure to second-hand smoke may even lower lung cancer risk. Exposure to second-hand smoke at work produced a relative risk of 1.17, with a confidence interval of 0.94 to 1.45. In either case, the risk ratios are not statistically significant. Therefore, no evidence.

One of the British tobacco companies offered a comparison. A recent survey of lung cancer risks found research that identified statistically significant relative risks of 3.18 for high consumption of rice pudding, 2.72 for whole milk, and 1.54 for fried meat. Health activists and lifestyle fascists have not yet proposed a ban on rice pudding and steak, in part because pudding and steak are not -- yet -- considered "addictive." On the other hand, sex and certain forms of sexual behaviour are now being labelled "addictive." Before the sex police arrive at the door, maybe it's time to ban health activists.

Ultimately, the future of smoking bans should not depend on scientific research. From an individual rights perspective, the right to smoke must override the health scares, real or imagined. As columnist Andrew Coyne once put it, the smell of tobacco smoke in a bar is "the smell of freedom."

For many, however, freedom takes a back seat to the fact that smoking is also the smell of money. For governments collecting new taxes, for activists mounting campaigns, for agencies receiving state funding, for the U.S. lawyers collecting billions in contingency fees, tobacco has turned into a river of gold paid for by taxes on smokers.

Canada's inaccurately named Non-Smokers Rights Association actually has no significant popular support or membership among non-smokers and receives all its money from governments that tax smokers. During 1997, the NSRA and its sister organization received $822,568 in government grants, but they took in only $23,156 in membership fees. With that funding balance, the NSRA is at root merely an extension of the Health Canada bureaucracy masquerading as an independent interest group.

How long can this pillaging of smokers go on?

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