Friday, October 15, 2010

Fouling the Air

Once again we are having a debate about the dangers of second hand smoke-this time it is related to NYC's new initiative to demonstrate that not even God can filter out the deleterious effects of supposedly deadly cigarette smoke in NY's parks. City Room reports: "A New York City Council public hearing on a proposed smoking ban in city parks evolved into an hours-long, occasionally raucous showdown Thursday afternoon, touching on issues such as civil liberties, public health, big government and litter. The hearing focused largely on a bill, introduced by Councilwoman Gale Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat, with the support of the Bloomberg administration, that would ban smoking in the public parks, playgrounds, beaches and pedestrian plazas, but also included testimony on a compromise bill, which would lead to designated smoking sections in many parks."

In the past we have defended a number of small business interests on issues related to smoking-advertising restrictions and indoor bans being the two most heated. What really intrigues us is how the issue of second hand smoke has transcended science-and entered into the realm of mystical belief. This was most keenly seen when former health commissioner Tom Frieden postulated that we were losing over 1,000 New Yorkers from deaths that he attributed to the fall out from exposure to second hand smoke.

Well, it's been over eight years since the city's ban went into effect, and has anyone done the follow up research to find those New Yorkers who have escaped the deadly second hand menace? Of course not-but the canards were flying at the City Council yesterday, fouling the air more severely than any cigarette could: "It’s simply not true” that smoke dissipates in the air, Dr. Farley said, underscoring the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke but also noting that litter eradication would be a “side benefit” of the ban."

Really? So smoke doesn't dissipate in the air? What a crock. The fact is that it has yet to be determined with any scientific validity that long term-intimate-exposure to second hand smoke harms the people exposed. The longitudinal study done by the WHO demonstrated that there were little or no causal links (a study that has been relegated to the dustbin of history because it dramatized the unscientific nature of the second hand smoke chorus).

But, as Aldous Huxley once said, "Facts don't cease to exist because they are ignored." Here's what the WHO study found: "The World Health Organization's first study on SHS is a textbook example of the right way to conduct an epidemiological study. Unfortunately for them, it yielded unexpected results. They responded by doing a second one, a meta-analysis, that allowed them to extract the results they wanted."

The results: "The study found no statistically significant risk existed for non-smokers who either lived or worked with smokers. The only statistically significant number was a decrease in the risk of lung cancer among the children of smokers."

As libertarian critic Jacob Sallum has pointed out: "The science probably will never be "in," if that means conclusive proof that long-term exposure to secondhand smoke causes lung cancer and heart disease, because low-level risks are very hard to confirm in epidemiological studies...Since it is difficult even to measure the health consequences of long-term, relatively intense exposure to secondhand smoke among people living with smokers for decades, how could one possibly demonstrate an effect from, say, a few molecules? It's clear that the vast majority of people exposed to secondhand smoke suffer no noticeable injury, so in what sense is their exposure unsafe? "No safe level" is an article of faith, not a scientific statement."

With the science being questionable, the policy issue comes down to values-and with the Bloombergistas that means, not do no harm, but butt into all of our lives for our own good, of course. Sallum elsewhere makes the point: "The issue of what the government should do about secondhand smoke is independent from the issue of exactly how risky it is. Whether smoking bans are a good idea is a question not of science but of values, of whether we want to live in a country where a majority forcibly imposes its preferences on everyone else or one where there is room for choice and diversity."

Council members Robert Jackson and Dan Halloran have the right idea about where all of this is headed-and we'll give them the last word: "Opponents had a champion in City Councilmember Robert Jackson, a ­­­Manhattan Democrat who, in a series of heated exchanges, accused the city of being “too restrictive.” Similarly, Councilmember Daniel Halloran, a Queens Republican, voiced his concerns that any outdoor smoking ban would lead down a “slippery slope” toward an overbearing government. “Are we going to be back here in five years talking about a ban on smoking in households that have children in them?” he asked. “What’s the line in the sand?”