I used to believe more or less more or less everything I was told about tobacco. That it caused lung cancer. And that it was addictive. And that Big Tobacco had been lying about both of these for half a century or more.
Why did I believe it? Because there wasn’t any reason not to believe it. Researchers had shown it repeatedly, and senior doctors backed them up. And the researchers and doctors wouldn’t lie, would they?
Why didn’t I stop smoking, then? Simple. Because tobacco is one of life’s pleasures, much like alcohol, and meat, and cars, and so much else. If I stopped doing anything that carried any risk, I’d stop doing everything. Because there’s risk attached to everything.
Also, I didn’t know any smokers who’d died of lung cancer. Nor even showed any signs of ill health. The only people I knew (all two of them) who’d died of lung cancer were, oddly enough, both non-smokers. They weren’t even ex-smokers.
And also, back in the 1960s, I’d met Dr W. He was the first antismoker I ever encountered. He used to inveigh against smoking like a fundamentalist preacher. He didn’t produce any studies or figures (although I’m sure he knew about them) to show how 99.9% of lung cancer patients in the 1950 Doll and Hill study had been smokers. No, his hatred of tobacco was visceral. And he was also a profoundly inhibited man. Not only did he not smoke, but he didn’t drink either (except for a thimbleful of wine at Christmas). In fact, I never saw him enjoy anything. He didn’t watch television or listen to the radio or read newspapers or books or anything. He never played any games of any sort. When he got home from work, he’d head straight out into the garden to tend his vegetables, or repair things round the house. Above all, he was incapable of smiling. When, during conversations, he felt he maybe should be smiling or laughing, he’d hitch up the corners of his mouth into a mirthless rictus. And I decided that he was a bit insane. Not insane in any certifiable sense, because he held down a medical job, and owned a house, and raised a family. Nor was he in any sense ‘evil’ or unkind. There was just something profoundly missing from his psychological makeup. I wondered if, as a boy, he’d been savagely beaten every single day for the slightest infraction. For me, he became not just the first of the antismokers, but the godfather of all of them. And I discounted everything he had to say about tobacco – or anything else for that matter.
I didn’t see much of Dr W after the 1960s, and he dropped out of mind until 40 years later, when the UK smoking ban was first mooted, on the grounds that secondhand smoke posed a health threat. Which seemed crazy to me, and wrong, and was the sort of thing Dr W might have said. In fact, I wasn’t sure that even Dr W was ever so bat-shit crazy to have suggested such a thing. The researchers who were peddling this notion, and the senior doctors who were repeating it, were either mistaken or they were lying. For the first time in my life I began to wonder whether doctors might tell lies.
Furthermore, when the ban came into force, and wrecked lots of people’s social lives (including mine), and destroyed little pub communities, and bankrupted thousands of pubs, and made pariahs of smokers, it was the smoking ban rather than smoking itself that seemed to me to be truly evil. Could anything justify doing so much harm to so many people? Particularly something which was quite manifestly an untruth from the outset.
And if they were lying about secondhand smoke, then had they also been lying about firsthand, active smoking? Maybe smoking didn’t cause lung cancer? And maybe when senior tobacco executives all said that they didn’t believe smoking caused cancer, they weren’t lying either? Maybe the reputation for sheer mendacity that the tobacco companies had acquired was wholly unjustified?
Today I’ve been wondering what Big Tobacco’s lies were supposed to be, and so started reading a few antismoking websites to find out. Like this one.
And what they said was that tobacco killed ‘nearly half a million Americans’ every year, and that the tobacco companies knew this perfectly well, but set out anyway to get the youth of America to become addicted, to cynically make up for the numbers killed by smoking. The tobacco companies were barefaced liars:
Congressman Harry Waxman held a famous series of Congressional hearings in 1994 in which the CEOs of the four major tobacco companies were subpoenaed to testify before Waxman’s committee about the cover-up and lies of Big Tobacco. All four CEOs — from RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lollilard — steadfastly refused to budge an inch under withering questioning from Waxman and other congressmen that they knew cigarettes were addictive and were killing people. They all four claimed they did not believe this.
The public was outraged. It was a major public relations debacle for Big Tobacco. Within months, a perjury investigation was initiated by the Department of Justice. All four CEOs were eventually fired. Ultimately, the Department of Justice claimed it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute for perjury because the four CEOs testified under oath they believed tobacco did not addict people nor cause cancer. They had crafted their answers very carefully, obviously with help from attorneys. Because they had used the word believe, they could not be prosecuted for perjury.
I remember this episode, and how at the time people asked, ‘How could they say that? Everybody knows that smoking causes lung cancer!’
I also found a YouTube video from March 2011 in which it was said (1 minute in):
A federal court is requiring tobacco companies to tell the truth about cigarette smoking. Here’s the truth: Smoking kills 1,200 Americans every day.
That ‘true’ figure is actually the 440,000 (1200 x 365) Americans supposedly killed by tobacco every year. It’s also the ‘nearly half a million’. You’d think that this was a body count, but in fact it’s an imaginary number of deaths, produced by multiplying a few numbers together:
The figures we see (i.e.: the 440,000 “tobacco-related deaths”) are a sheer speculation, and the worst possible scenario of that speculation. Here is an example: if in country A there are 10,000 lung cancer deaths a year and 9,000 deaths are amongst smokers, the “causality” of the 9,000 deaths is “attributed” to smoking by basically ignoring all the nearly 40 other known factors or the thousands of possible combinations of factors that could have caused the lung cancer in smokers. That is because those other factors are also present in non smokers – yet this is something that is impossible to verify and especially to measure. In other words, since all people (smokers or not) are exposed to all other factors except smoking and there is more of disease X amongst smokers, then smoking must be the cause of disease X. Thus, by arbitrary exclusion, smoking becomes some sort of monofactorial disease.
Nobody really has any idea how many smokers are killed by their smoking. The 440,000 figure has been plucked from the air. There’s nothing ‘true’ about it at all. It’s a speculative figure of how many smokers might have been killed by their smoking, assuming that smoking really is as bad as some people say it is. And yet it’s presented as “the truth”.
Never mind whether Big Tobacco has told lies in the past: If Big Tobacco is being asked to publicly state that 440,000 Americans are dying every year as a consequence of smoking, then they’re being asked to tell a lie.
As best I’ve been able to make out today, Big Tobacco’s principal past ‘lie’ was to disagree that smoking caused lung cancer. But is it a lie to disagree with what ‘everybody knows’? And is it a lie to disagree with that other truth that ‘everybody knows’ – that human carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming?
We had a debate here back in December, in which Chris Snowdon and Rich White and several others took part, over whether smoking causes lung cancer. Chris was quite sure that it did. And Rich doubted it. And so did I. In my view, the jury’s still out on that question. Just because everybody else believes it, that doesn’t mean I have to believe it as well. In fact, I believe it less and less.
These days, I’m more and more inclined to think that what’s driving the antismoking campaign is a profound and largely irrational conviction that Smoking Is Wrong (and also that similar sorts of activities – for example, drinking alcohol – are also Wrong). It’s got nothing to do with science or epidemiology. They’d made up their minds against tobacco long before they started doing any studies. It’s a moral prohibition. The antismokers simply hate smoking in the way that Dr W used to hate it: Because it’s a pleasure, and they can’t stand pleasure. And Dr W simply and indelibly expressed that primal, visceral hatred.