- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Colorado is joining 12 other states in banning smoking in restaurants and bars, as if customers and workers couldn’t decide for themselves if they wanted to spend time where tobacco fumes reside, and as if the owners of these establishments were something less than American citizens whose freedoms should be respected.

The legislators cannot be bothered by such trivialities — self-accountability, ha — because they are too busy pretending they are on a noble lifesaving mission. It doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm to find they are widely applauded by a majority of their constituents who are nonsmokers with easily offended nostrils and who are probably mostly ignorant of the most exhaustive research project ever completed on secondhand smoke.

The study involved 118,000 Californians. It followed their health history for four decades, and was conducted by highly respected scientists and published in the highly respected British Medical Journal. Here is what it said: There is no evidence of a “causal relationship” between “exposure” to tobacco smoke in the air around you and death. A “small effect” cannot be ruled out, the scientists reported, but that’s it. Period.

On the other side is a once-ballyhooed 1993 “meta-analysis” — a study of a number of studies — by the Environmental Protection Agency. It didn’t bother to protect the truth.

Careful commentators and even a court of law concurred the study violated widely accepted statistical methods to arrive at conclusions the EPA had pre-decided were in the public’s best interests. It did not finally demonstrate that passive smoke causes cancer any more than some more recent studies have shown smoking bans in Helena, Mont., and Pueblo, Colo., dramatically decreased heart attacks.

The Helena study has been pretty thoroughly debunked. Its sample was tiny, the research effort was anorexic and the study didn’t account for a similar decrease in a year prior to the ban. On the face of it, quick and substantial declines in heart attacks after a ban such as the one in Pueblo are much less likely to be tied to the ban than to reflect normal statistical ups and downs. This probability is brought home by a study of the heart-attack drops after smoking bans in states with a combined population of tens of millions, not in one community of tens of thousands. The finding? There was no overall drop.

Secondhand smoke almost certainly can have deleterious health consequences. But both commonsense and science tell us the threat’s extent depends on how concentrated the smoke is and whether you are sucking it in day after day, year after year. Based on tests, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it is rare to find a workplace nook or cranny with concentrations thick enough to be deemed dangerous.

None of the above is difficult to discover for anyone with access to the Internet and an inclination to get at the facts. This raises the question of what might be going on with all these state and community bans, some of which even deny people the chance to light up outside.

It’s politics in part — as legislators know, nonsmoking voters love smoke-free zones — but it is also zealotry and a new Puritanism. Many anti-tobacco crusaders want so badly to waste this weed that they close their eyes to any argument that might get in the way. And great bunches of morally indignant modernists are intent on imposing their sophisticated values on everyone else, one being: Thou shalt not smoke.

People shouldn’t, of course, not if they care for their physical wellbeing and longevity. But while it is fine and good to scorn smoking and to remind people of its cruelties, it is not so good for governments to engage in sledgehammer coerciveness with little or no regard for individual self-determination, and certainly none for what science tells us.

Telling the truth about smoking has caused millions to quit the habit and any number of private concerns to enforce their own restrictions. We don’t need political pretense or blind fervor to keep us marching in the direction of a healthier, happier America. Truth will do fine.

Jay Ambrose is former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers.

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