Smoking out the facts

The ban on public smoking is justified as a measure to protect workers from second-hand smoke. But how big is the risk?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Following the House of Commons vote on Tuesday, smoking in any enclosed public space in England will now be banned, adding to bans already announced for Scotland and Northern Ireland. That an activity enjoyed by millions of people, and tolerated by most others, will be outlawed illustrates the character of British political life today. Bereft of any vision for the future, politics is increasingly devoted to regulating our lives in minute detail.

Smoking is a significant health risk – but the evidence that passive smoking is a significant danger is limited and contradictory. If there is a risk from breathing other people’s smoke, it is small. Health campaigners suggest that passive smoking causes around 1,000 deaths in the UK each year, although some alarmist studies put the figure much higher. Passive smoking is said to increase the risk of lung cancer and heart disease by around 25 per cent (1).

A thousand deaths seems like a terrible death toll until set against the 600,000-plus deaths that occur in the UK each year, in a population of 60million. Even if we were to take these figures at face value, a quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests that one in 60,000 people die each year because of passive smoking. This hardly seems worth worrying about.

However, we should be even more sceptical about the figures. Lung cancer is relatively rare among non-smokers; a 25 per cent increase on a low risk is still a low risk. As for heart disease, the British Heart Foundation suggests the increase in risk for active smokers is about 60 per cent. Passive smoking involves an exposure to the chemicals produced by cigarettes of roughly one or two per cent of that for active smokers, yet this whiff of smoke is supposed to increase the risk of heart disease by 25 per cent. This seems implausible.

In any event, careful epidemiologists treat increases of risk of less than 100 per cent with scepticism, simply because there are so many potentially confounding factors that could distort the results. Far from being enormous effects, the risk factors widely stated for passive smoking are in fact very weak.

No wonder the late Sir Richard Doll, co-author of the 1950s study that first raised the alarm about cigarettes, regarded the weak and confused evidence about passive smoking as ‘utterly different’ to the strong evidence from that first report. Interviewed in 2001 on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs, he told Sue Lawley that ‘the effects of other people smoking in my presence are so small that it doesn’t worry me’.

How could such a small risk be the subject of such censure? Society seems to have completely lost its bearings when it comes to judging risk. Dangers that would once have been regarded as trivial now weigh heavily on our minds. Political and social changes, particularly over the past 20 years or so, have left us feeling less like a society and more like a mass of isolated individuals. The ties that bind us to everyone else are weaker now than for a very long time, and there is little sense that society is moving forward to a better future.

The upshot is that we feel naked in the face of the apparent barrage of threats that face us. As Frank Furedi has argued on spiked: ‘Society’s difficulty with managing risk is driven by a culture of safety that sees vulnerability as our defining condition.’ (see Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi.)

This sense of vulnerability is exaggerated by a political class desperate to find a sense of purpose. With no big project or alternative vision to guide them, our politicians have found it easier to ban things that they disapprove of than to consider how the world might be a different and better place when they leave office.

Thus, under the current Blair government we’ve had bans and restrictions on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, hunting with hounds, religious ‘hate speech’, driving with mobile phones, smacking, protests near parliament, handguns, fur farming, cosmetics testing on animals, fizzy drinks in schools, using fireworks late at night, children being out alone in the evening, and live entertainment, among many others. Now we can add smoking in public places. Piled on top of this are the petty controls on our lives delivered to us through health services, anti-social behaviour orders, identity cards et al.

If Blair’s government has been bad, the various assemblies and parliaments he has created in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London have been all too keen to use their limited powers to limit our freedoms even further. And as Brendan O’Neill notes elsewhere on spiked, an administration under the leadership of Gordon Brown is likely to be even worse (see Gordon Brown’s tyranny of security, by Brendan O’Neill).

What is missing from all of this is the notion of the self-possessed individual who can cope with the vagaries of life and can rightfully demand that the state stops interfering in his or her life. We do not need ministers, health campaigners, doctors or watchdogs to tell us how to live. Our response to their smoking ban, as with all their other prescriptions, should be a curt: ‘Butt out.’

Read on:

A victory for the inner teacher’s pet, by Dolan Cummings

spiked-issue: Smoking

(1) Second-hand smoking and coronary heart disease, British Heart Foundation

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Topics Politics


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