For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health by Jacob Sullum

A Welcome Voice of Reason and Truth about Cigarettes

The Free Press • 1998 • 288 pages • $25.00

John Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an adjunct scholar with the Midland, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Hounded by billboards and other “public-service” exhortations, barred from lighting up almost everywhere but in their own cars and homes, and saddled with rising cigarette taxes, smokers are being treated like pariahs—for their own good, of course. The anti-smoking crusade asserts that tobacco companies concealed the dangers and addictive nature of cigarettes, and manipulated their nicotine content to addict smokers; that all tobacco forms are bad; that secondhand smoke greatly endangers others; that people, especially impressionable teenagers, smoke because of insidious advertisements like Joe Camel; and so on.

In this levelheaded and well-informed book, Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum convincingly debunks these claims. Smoking’s health hazards have been known, and openly discussed, for decades. So has manufacturers’ control of cigarettes’ nicotine levels. Cigars and smokeless tobacco are far less dangerous than cigarettes. No evidence exists that casual exposure to secondhand smoke is a significant danger. As for supposedly sinister old Joe, the most important factors influencing teenagers’ decisions to smoke are their sense of smoking’s risks and benefits, the demonstration effect of family members who smoke, and peer behavior.

Opposition to smoking, Sullum points out, is nothing new. King James I, Pope Innocent X, and others denounced tobacco as addictive, unhealthy, inconsiderate of others, and downright wicked. But people kept smoking for the benefits and pleasures they got from it, and brushed off warnings of health hazards.

The 1964 Surgeon General’s report stated that smoking, linked to cancer and other ailments, was a health hazard serious enough to warrant “appropriate remedial action.” This opened, in Sullum’s words, “the most concerted, sustained, and successful effort in history to discourage the use of tobacco.” For Your Own Good carefully narrates that effort. At first, public health officials realistically recognized that Americans would not abruptly kick the habit, and opted to steer them to safer cigarettes with low tar and nicotine. But gradually the objective changed to eliminating all tobacco use. The anti-smoking movement won several victories. Cigarette advertising on television and radio was banned after 1970. Increasingly blunt warnings were mandated on cigarette packs and cartons.

Feeling the pressure and terrified of lawsuits, the tobacco companies responded by criticizing the evidence of health hazards as inconclusive, sponsoring its own research into the link between tobacco and lung cancer, and introducing filter-tipped and other “safer” cigarettes. Sullum observes that this refusal to acknowledge smoking’s well-known dangers “has made the cigarette business the most reviled and distrusted industry in America.” The unrelenting threat of lawsuits finally broke the tobacco companies’ resistance, and in 1997, to limit their liability, they offered the (in)famous $368.5 billion agreement with the federal government.

Sullum acknowledges the cancer risk and describes nicotine as “the most dangerous recreational drug.” He describes the tobacco companies as “cynically dancing around the truth to ward off liability and protect [their] profits,” but he adds that they “didn’t fool anyone who didn’t want to be fooled.”

By contrast, one of the anti-smoking movement’s worst aspects is its end-justifies-the-means dishonesty, which Sullum abundantly presents: twisting research to fit its agenda, attacking researchers for saying what they in fact did not say (for example, that some cigarettes are safe), and relying on hysterical rhetoric, ad hominem assertions, and outright falsehoods. Sullum himself has been smeared as being “in the pay of the tobacco industry,” because R.J. Reynolds used one of his articles in an ad campaign and a tiny fraction of the Reason Foundation’s budget comes from Philip Morris contributions.

A favorite recent recourse of the smoking-bashers is cigarette tax increases. This will reduce smoking marginally, but will also spawn corruption and smuggling. Furthermore, stating that smoking is sensitive to price defeats the argument that cigarettes are irresistibly addictive. As Sullum wryly notes, “giving up cigarettes when the price of a pack goes up twenty-five cents is not the behavior of someone who is powerless over nicotine.”

Indeed, addiction receives much attention. Sullum concludes that smoking is a habit difficult to break, but not impossible (America has about as many ex-smokers as smokers). Will power is crucial. Smoking bashers who assert that cigarettes are irresistibly addictive are in effect abolishing man as a moral agent; “they criticize individualism itself, because it implies that people are responsible for their own behavior.”

Given the anti-smoking crusade’s premises, a cigarette ban is its logical culmination. But Prohibition and the war on drugs, Sullum shows, provide a valuable cautionary tale of crime, corruption, and despotic encroachments on individual liberties.

For Your Own Good is a rare, welcome voice of reason and truth about cigarettes. If you want to make sense of the smoking war, don’t miss it.

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