Brighton Council: what have you been smoking?

Monday 20 July 2015

On Tuesday, the Health and Wellbeing Board of Brighton and Hove Council will consider starting a consultation on whether to ban smoking in the city’s outdoor spaces like parks and beaches. Such a proposal should be welcomed - because it starkly reveals the ludicrous basis of bans on smoking more generally.

The council’s press release should get a nomination for the Guinness Book of Records for the number of non sequiturs and sly pieces of juxtaposition it contains. For example, take this paragraph: ‘The emphasis is on creating an environment free from second-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke is particularly dangerous for children. Children exposed to passive smoke are at higher risk of respiratory infections, asthma, bacterial meningitis and cot death. Second-hand smoke has been linked to around 165,000 new cases of disease among children in the UK each year.’

It is true that the same amount of smoke inhaled would be more dangerous to a child than an adult. But the implication is that second-hand smoke is a significant danger, but a particular danger to children. This is nonsense. Author Christopher Snowdon has provided chapter and verse on the evidence on smoking, looking at every study published up to 2007: ‘For every study that shows a statistically significant positive association, there are six that do not.’ Even where studies show a positive, statistically significant association between passive smoking and lung cancer, the effect is small in relative terms and tiny in absolute terms.

After listing some of the diseases where risk is increased from passive smoking (and some of the risk increases are so small that they must be questionable), we get the claim that second-hand smoke causes ‘165,000 new cases of disease’ in children. That comes from a report from 2010 by the Royal College of Physicians, Passive smoking and children. The overwhelming number of those ‘disease events’ were middle ear infections, for which the cases attributed to passive smoking were just seven per cent of all cases in the UK. Tricksy bit of bait and switch, huh?

Of course, precisely zero cases would be affected by a ban on smoking in outdoor spaces. Cigarette smoke is far more dilute for those around a smoker than for the smoker themselves. Indoors, the smoke lingers, so its effect increases, but is still small. But outdoors, the smoke drifts harmlessly away. The council’s director of public health, Tom Scanlon, admits as much: ‘Outdoor tobacco smoke dissipates more quickly than indoor smoke’, before adding, tendentiously, ‘but in certain concentrations and weather conditions it still poses an additional health risk to non-smokers’. That risk must be vanishingly small. Even one of the biggest tobacco haters of them all, Professor Simon Chapman, has suggested that ‘fleeting encounters with cigarette plumes’ in wide open spaces pose ‘a near homeopathic level of risk to others’. Anyone who seriously thinks that a ban on outdoor smoking will protect children’s health has clearly been smoking something rather stronger than tobacco.

So if the risk is so small, why bother with such bans? The answer can only be to ‘denormalise’ smoking - as indeed were all the previous smoking bans. Bit by bit, smoking will be banned from one place after to another. It will disappear from view, be airbrushed from our consciousness. The anti-smoking crowd has more in common with Joseph Stalin than it cares to admit.

About me

I'm a writer and author on a wide range of issues. I'm the former deputy editor of the online magazine spiked and I currently work at the Institute of Ideas. I'm the author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder (Imprint Academic, 2011).