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Surgeon General Uttered "Anti-Smoking Lie of the Year"

By Jacob Sullum

Tobacco policy blogger Michael Siegel picks 10 finalists for his Lie of the Year Award, which goes to "the anti-smoking group which disseminated the most egregious lie during 2010." Six of the finalists are statements regarding the health hazards of seondhand smoke.

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, for example, claims "there are virtually no health disparities between active and passive smoking"; "the risks of heart disease associated with secondhand smoke...are virtually indistinguishable from those associated with active smoking"; and "just thirty minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers."

The winner is the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, which recently warned that "even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause cardiovascular disease and could trigger acute cardiac events, such as heart attack." It also asserted that "inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke" can "damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer."

Whoppers like these are aimed at encouraging the proliferation and ever-widening reach of smoking bans, an important "public health" tool for discouraging smoking among people undeterred by the well-known hazards of the habit. Although these laws are sold as a way of protecting nonsmoking bystanders, their main "public health" payoff (in terms of preventing disease) comes from pushing smokers to cut back or quit and from making the habit less attractive.

Yet as Siegel notes, the hyperbolic claims used to promote smoking bans actually undermine warnings about the hazards of smoking by asserting a false equivalence. If a pack-a-day habit really is about as bad for you as spending a half-hour in a smoky bar, what's the big deal? Alternatively, if public health authorities are willing to lie about the dangers of secondhand smoke, why should we believe what they say about other risks?


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