Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ban on Second Hand Smoke

The June 18th Detroit Free Press had an op-ed under the Local Comment section titled "Smoke-Free or die" presumably a play on the state Motto of New Hampshire, "Live Free or die." It's a shame too because the meaning of "live free" is to live free of initiatory coercion by other men including the government--the very thing "smoke-free or die" advocates.

The subtitle of this attack on second hand smoke is "Smoking ban will save lives" by a Kenneth E. Warner who is "the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan and an internationally known expert on tobacco-related health and policy issues" according to the paper's accreditation. The justification for the ban is:
Our lawmakers will not fulfill their constitutional obligation to protect the health and welfare of Michigan citizens until they vote to pass such smoke-free legislation.
Once again we see the non-objective constitutional claim general welfare being invoked to justify government initiation of force against citizens. This time it's to ban smoking on the grounds of saving lives.

Doesn't matter. The proper function of government is the protection of individual rights. A look at the writings of our founders would reveal that a nanny state is not what they had in mind by the phrase general welfare. To call for the government to start the use of force against citizens to achieve some social good is precisely what our constitution was written to prevent. (It must be remembered that there is no such thing as a "social good." There are only individual goods and individual rights is the only rational, peaceful, civilized way of protecting them.)

But let's look at his claims. The statistics given by Mr. Warner are highly debatable because they are taken from statistical studies which can't prove anything. He doesn't indicate which studies he is referencing but some of the more popular ones were taken when nobody was writing down smoking as a cause of death on any death certificates, so how could they know smoking was a cause of death? They don't. It's just an extrapolation from the data of other studies.

The numbers he cites in this quote
Adults who don't smoke but are exposed to secondhand smoke have a 25%-30% greater chance of developing heart disease, and a 20%-30% greater chance of developing lung cancer.
are usually what statisticians call relative risks (rr) and do not indicate actual risk. Most scientists consider any rr below 100% (some use 200%) as statistically insignificant because such numbers can be caused by confounding factors, hidden biases or even chance. Mr. Warner's numbers are well below the significance level. It is also noteworthy that since he felt no need to tell his readers whether he was using relative risk or actual risk or odds ratios, (all three are different) many untrained readers will wrongly assume those numbers represent actual risk to themselves.

His contention that
Every year that our lawmakers fail to act on this issue, hundreds if not thousands of Michigan citizens will die from completely preventable, premature deaths because of secondhand smoke.
is nothing more than conjecture and an out of context meaning of premature. He also neglects to tell his readers that the average life expectancy of smokers is about 72 years according to studies quoted at this site. Also, how can they be premature if living to 72 and beyond? Premature to what? Clearly Mr. Warner is using 'premature' out of context. To him any death is a premature one if that person could have lived longer.

His assertion that there is "no safe level of exposure to second hand smoke" is another flagrant example of context dropping. In the context of a guaranteed safety, there is no such thing as a perfectly safe level of exposure to anything. But in the context of the principle of toxicology, 'the poison is in the dose', there are relatively safe levels of almost everything. For example, two aspirins can cure a headache but 200 can kill a person. The threat to health is relative to the size of the dose, not unconditional like Mr. Warner suggests.

Many of the 4000 chemicals he says are in second hand smoke are naturally occurring substances already in our bodies. There are trace amounts of mercury, dioxin, arsenic and many more in most of our bodies. In fact, the polonium 210 he mentions is also in every one's bodies in trace amounts according to this NRC website. So why aren't we all dead?

Some common sense needs to be applied here. Humans have been evolving for thousands of years and have developed defenses against trace amounts of some deadly stuff. What this means is that in fact and in reality there can be safe levels relative to the size of the dose.

As for the recent poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko by polonium 210, another thing Mr. Warner didn't tell his readers was that Mr. Litvinenko was fed five times the lethal dose which itself is many times higher than a person would encounter naturally.

His claim that second hand smoke is the "deadliest environmental exposure the average person confronts" is more nonsense. If people who expose themselves to first hand smoke are living to an average of 72, people exposed to second hand smoke cannot be dying sooner. The implication would be that second hand smoke is more deadly than first hand smoke. I don't think so.

Yes this is an op-ed and Mr. Warner is entitled to his views. That this is an agenda driven advocacy piece is beyond doubt when he tries to convince his readers that there is no difference between the force of nature and man's force against man. He also conflates free choice with force. For example,talking about arsenic and hydrogen cyanide he says:
Michigan law not only permits but effectively requires us to inhale those chemicals.
Requires? He ends with
When a former Russian spy is poisoned with polonium 210, it's front-page news. Yet when a child in Michigan is forced to inhale that same polonium 210 in a restaurant, no one seems to notice. It's time for Michigan's voters to notice. Tell your state lawmakers that you will no longer tolerate the daily poisoning of our citizens.
"forced to inhale?" Being ignored here is the fact that the responsibility for a Michigan child rests on the shoulders of that child's parents, not his (Warner's). That he believes the population belongs to the state (and its spokesmen), is supported by his reference to 'citizens' in the possessive (our).

I am not saying that smoking is healthy or that it's not unhealthy. If Mr. Warner were to say that smoke, first or second hand, may contribute to some cancer and heart disease, I would support that. But that's not what he's saying. He wants to end the debate once and for all with the power of government force. To end debate with force is to deflect attention away from the real causes of lung cancer and other ailments. Why should private enterprise or for that matter, government granting agencies, pour money into a non-problem, one that has already been solved with a ban? I fear that is exactly what is happening and here is why.

I have heard of two plausible causes of lung cancer from smoke, 1) smoking causes mucus in the lungs to become toxic and this toxic solution somehow causes cancer, and 2) the polonium 210 in the smoke emits alpha particles which can disrupt the DNA genes in the cells of the lungs causing them to become cancerous.

There is only one thing wrong with these two causes (and any others I may not have heard of): They do not explain why there are millions of smokers who have both the toxic mucus and the radioactive Polonium 210 in their lungs and do not get lung cancer. There are reasons for this and as I wrote in another post:
But to declare that smoking has been proven to be the definite cause of lung cancer is for scientists to fail to be honest with the public and with themselves because it refuses to explain why millions of people smoke and don't get lung cancer. There is a reason, perhaps several, why they don't get lung cancer and these reasons need to be discovered. There could be scientific discoveries waiting to happen which won't because the establishment has already decided it knows the cause, smoking.
Mr. Warner's op-ed is not so much intended to educate people on the possible evils of smoking, but to recruit them over to the statist principle that it is OK to start the use of force against citizens to achieve a 'social goal.'

The bottom line is that the health threat from second hand smoke while real to some extent, is nowhere near the danger it's cracked up to be by the statists, but even if it were, there's no way rational people would then partake in an activity that deadly. By that deadly I mean knowing that one will not make it into old age.

It may seem like a good idea to use just a little force to save some lives in the here and now but it will always result in the loss of more lives later when that principle is expanded, as it must be, to envelope ever more aspects of human behavior. A ban on smoking will just increase the chances people will not live free.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well stated. Nothing more need be said.

Though perhaps U of M has set the whole op-ed up as a joke ... Dean Warner is going to warn us about the need to outlaw cigarettes!?!

Perhaps the pun ... and allusions to Dean Wormer were just irresistible.

Would that it were so.

--- Robert Nasir

Mike N said...

Robert:
Perceptive pun. Dean Warner wants to be an official warner. heh

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your blog when I googled "second hand smoke." I wish I could find some concrete evidence on second hand smoke! Both of my parents smoked when I lived in their home for 18 years (I'm now 22). All this jive about second hand smoke is making me think I'm going to die soon. I need some reassurance! Your entry helped some. Thanks.

Chelsea

Mike N said...

Anon:
Glad to have been of some help. What with government encouragement of science-read government money-science has become so politicised one has to be real careful of the information one gets from them. I recommend you visit the site of the critics or so-called skeptics and visit them often. Lastly, I think everyone should take the time to learn a few basic principles of statistics. I highly recommend Junk Science Judo by Steven Milloy at his site Junkscience.com.