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The Shameful History of the Anti-Smoking Crusade

Jacob Grier doesn’t like cigarettes. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He advises people against smoking cigarettes. And yet he believes that adults should be allowed to smoke cigarettes without being harassed, demonised, over-taxed and thrown out of every building in America, including, in some cases, their own home. This view, which was once so uncontroversial as to go without saying, makes him virtually a libertarian provocateur today. In The Rediscovery of Tobacco, Grier explains how this cultural revolution happened.

It is unusual for governments in modern democracies deliberately to encourage intolerance and animosity towards a large group of fellow citizens, but that is effectively what happened when ‘denormalisation’ was embraced as a tobacco-control strategy. The restraints of the US Constitution mean that many of the policies available to anti-smoking campaigners elsewhere, such as advertising bans and plain packaging, are out of reach, and so, rather than targeting the product, American crusaders have forcefully targeted the consumer.

It is the petty vindictiveness of America’s ever-expanding network of smoking bans that really irks. There will soon be nowhere left to hide. If it is not obvious to you that most ‘smoke-free’ laws are contrivances to force smokers to quit, rather than to ‘protect’ nonsmokers, this book will surely persuade you. It is almost comic to watch the quackademics of ‘tobacco control’ garrotting science to justify bans on smoking outdoors and in private dwellings. When the dubious epidemiology of secondhand smoke outlived its usefulness, the concept of thirdhand smoke was invented to persuade the public that they are at risk from anything that had ever come into contact with smoke: furniture, carpets, wallpaper and, most pertinently, the clothes, hair and skin of smokers themselves. In the land of the free, campaigners would rather encourage mass hypochondria than admit to being paternalists.

The mere sight of someone smoking is viewed as sufficiently dangerous to justify criminalisation. When New York City’s health commissioner wanted to ban smoking in Central Park in 2010, he asserted that ‘families should be able to bring their children to parks and beaches knowing that they won’t see others smoking’. The ban was introduced the following year.

By the time vaping became a mainstream activity in the early 2010s, the anti-smoking lobby was well practised in the art of manipulating public opinion. The greatest harm-maximisation innovation of the century was no match for people who could get away with making three preposterous claims before breakfast. By 2019, a steady stream of junk science and outright lies from supposed ‘public health’ groups had convinced two-thirds of Americans that e-cigarettes were as hazardous or more hazardous than traditional cigarettes.

The anti-smoking fanatics get away with it, Grier argues, because they have had no accountability since the turn of the millennium. By the mid-1990s, the American tobacco industry had become a byword for corporate malfeasance. By the end of the decade, cigarette companies had finally stopped trying to dispute the addiction and harm associated with their products and closed down front groups such as the Tobacco Institute. On the face of it, this was no great loss to smokers, but one effect of the industry withdrawing from the stage was to leave the anti-smoking lobby free to say almost anything. The threat of having their work picked apart by the Tobacco Institute ‘helped enforce rigour in anti-smoking research in much the same way that the adversarial process in a courtroom trial forces both sides to justify their claims with evidence’. Without it, it was open season for junk scientists.

Meanwhile, the spectacular collapse in trust in the industry gave the media the only story about smoking it would ever need. It became a simple morality tale in which there was no doubt about who the goodies and baddies were. Those who called for greater restrictions on smoking wore a halo, while those who defended smokers’ rights were suspect. Journalists were understandably anxious not to be fooled again, but their lack of scrutiny of the anti-smoking side amounted to giving a free pass to extremist cranks and fostered ‘a scientific environment in which research is judged primarily for its usefulness in promoting the goals of tobacco control, dissent is punished by personal attacks, and dubious claims about the effects of second- and thirdhand smoke can be made with impunity, sure to receive favourable press coverage by reporters eager to write a shocking headline’.

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