Thursday, June 21, 2007

BLOWING MORAL SMOKE

“I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with them that do.” With that folksy caveat from a lifelong non-smoker, let me offer a few words that might warm the nicotine-restricted arteries of cancer-stick addicts.

California cities from Belmont in the Bay Area to Escondido and Oceanside in North County have been pondering bans on smoking in public spaces. The recently approved Belmont ban will apparently extend to all areas beyond single-family detached residences—including automobiles. Locally, Solana Beach, San Diego, and Del Mar have already passed no-smoking-on-the-beach ordinances.

The primary reason given for such bans has been the deadly effects of secondhand smoke—a toxin that allegedly causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year. Occasionally the litter impact of cigarettes is thrown in to “butt-ress” the case for public prohibition. And in some cases global warming is included in the grab bag of arguments.

What most folks don’t know, however, is that the aforementioned mortality estimate from a 1993 EPA “metastudy” (i.e. a study of other studies) was obtained by violating basic research protocols. Nor do they know that these “findings” were essentially declared bogus both by the Congressional Research Service and by a federal judge who reviewed the data. Indeed, if standard statistical methods had been used in the EPA study, the mortality impact of second hand smoke would have been judged insignificant.

The same disregard for statistical method applies to the World Health Organization study done in 1998—and to almost all secondhand smoke research. Still, those who find smoking obnoxious (which it is) and who have an overwhelming urge to regulate the habits of fellow citizens, don’t really care about scientific integrity. What they care about is their cause and that cough-inducing smoke.

Personally, since I have no stub in this ashtray, I could care less if smoking were banned. I am upset, however, at the way anti-smoking zealots often ignore more profound moral problems. It’s as though their health and environment passion compensates for looking the other way when it comes to the social depravity spread by pimps like Jerry Springer. Likewise, the trans fat crew get exercised over KFC’s food preparation methods but yawn when the musical mafia promote unspeakably vile lyrics via gangsta’ rap.

In 1993, the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan lamented how Americans were “Defining Deviancy Down”—accepting high illegitimacy and crime rates as par for the course. Shortly thereafter, columnist Charles Krauthammer noted a corresponding trend—“Defining Deviancy Up.” Under this scenario activities formerly considered gauche or stupid (e.g. making crude jokes) were being upgraded to criminal offenses (hate-crime harassment).

Combining these scholarly insights, I see today’s hysteria over secondhand smoke as a moral head-fake—an exaggerated cause that allows people to ignore more destructive behavior that hits closer to home. Better to feel morally exalted about pushing a smoking ban than to be labeled “judgmental” (a la Dr. Laura) for denouncing the narcissism that’s transformed the homes of countless children into tawdry love-shacks.

1 comment:

JoAnna Dillon said...

As a non-smoker, I agree with you on this one. I can see both sides of the argument concerning whether a smoking ban should occur or whether it shouldn't. I personally can't stand second hand smoke. I was raised in a home with two smokers and for years had a continuous cough that only stopped after being out of that environment for a year. It personnally annoys me when I'm attempting to enjoy a meal and someone is smoking at the next table. However, there are definately more serious issues that should be addressed where children are concerned. I suppose that to a certain extent, the people who support the bans are using the health issues of children as their primary focus to see their agenda passed. It doesn't matter which side of the fence one is on this topic, it's a heated subject from all points of view.