Viewpoint: Antismoking Advocates Have Misused Science

Evidence that smoking in public places endangers the health of others is weak, even while the argument against smoking is strong

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Daniel Barry / Getty Images

A cigarette butt in Times Square, May 23, 2011 in New York City.

Nothing drives academics crazier than when the right wing ignores, undermines or misuses scientific evidence to achieve ideological public-policy goals that they favor, whether the issue in question is global warming or abortion. But as a new paper by tobacco-control proponents Ronald Bayer and Kathleen E. Bachynski of Columbia’s School of Public Health, in the respected journal Health Affairs, shows, the left can play games with science too. And when it does, it needs to be called out for doing so since shaping science to fit moral goals, even laudable ones, weakens the trust and credibility of the most respected source we have for facts in public policy debates — science.

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Bayer and Bachynski examined bans on smoking in public. These bans began to take off in the late 1970s and now include more than 840 parks and 150 beaches across the U.S. alone, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. California has bans in 155 parks and on 46 beaches; Minnesota, 118 parks and 25 beaches; and New Jersey, 83 parks and 18 beaches. France, Australia and New Zealand have enacted bans as well.

In getting these bans enacted three justifications were used: Smoking on beaches and in parks posed a health hazard to nonsmokers, especially children; cigarette butts were toxic to humans and animals and constituted an unacceptable form of litter; and public smoking by adults provided a dangerous model that threatened the future well-being of children and adolescents.

The problem is that the scientific evidence supporting each of these arguments is exceedingly weak. Consider the comments of some of the toughest antismoking groups in the nation about the best rationale for bans — the hazards to others of smoking in public. An official of the American Lung Association, concerned that efforts to ban smoking on beaches and in parks might deflect attention from more effective public-health interventions, told Bayer and Bachynski in an interview, “I don’t think we should be making claims that are not supported by the data. If you try to tie it [banning smoking on beaches and in parks] to a health outcome, that’s where you get in trouble.”  A representative of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was even more direct in another interview: “There is not a lot of science around outdoor-smoking bans … There is some science, but you have to be very close to the smoke in an outdoor setting … The last thing we want to do is put our credibility on the line with regard to the science.”

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There is nothing wrong with making an argument that smoking is a filthy, costly, lethal habit that ought to be discouraged. There is everything wrong with saying that smoking cannot be tolerated in parks, on beaches and in other public places because science shows it is dangerous to others if the available science does not convincingly show that. By hiding their motives for banning smoking in public places behind statements like “there is evidence,” the antismoking crowd advances its short-term goals at the cost of a loss in trust for others.

Politicians and policymakers have shown often enough that they will do just fine without science in making important policy decisions. Many already use it when it serves their cause and otherwise mock it and its practitioners. Anything that erodes trust must therefore be quickly identified and corrected. This is especially important when you consider that people don’t think of physicists, doctors, sociologists, geologists and biologists as different but rather as part of a single community: science. The erosion of trust in one field affects all members of that community.

Science is nearly all we have to bridge the ideological divides that are paralyzing our politics. No one should be allowed to get away with grounding policy on weak, bad or fringe science, even when their overall aim is worth achieving.

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