By Narinder Dhaliwal, MA | March 8, 2017
Program Manager, ETR
Did you happen to see the recent Slate article about secondhand smoke? It had an enticing headline—the kind that often makes Slate such a compelling and engaging read:
“We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans”
Personally, I’m quite fond of science. I’ve also worked in tobacco control and the promotion of smoke-free workplaces for over two decades. The possibility that “terrible science” was the foundation of advocacy that has been at the heart of my work was disturbing to say the least.
Make no mistake. Jacob Grier, the author of the Slate piece, is a smart, sharp writer with a good critical mind. He describes inconsistencies in some of the research, including studies that found no clear link between passive smoking and lung cancer. He outlines “alarmist” claims of anti-smoking groups that have expanded “the boundaries of the smoke-free world ever outward.” He notes the burden of smoking bans on the “smoking minority,” and shares perspectives from one (male) smoker who compares this to being discriminated against for being “black or a woman.”
Is he correct? Have we made an unfair error in our policies supporting smoke-free workplaces, schools and parks? Do we set those bans simply because non-smokers find the presence of secondhand smoke an inconvenience?
Here at ETR, we’re big advocates for science-informed policies and programs. Much of our focus is in the world of health education and promotion. We look to some of the finest research in our field to guide our efforts.
We often think of ourselves as ambassadors of science. We want more people to embrace the power of science. As ambassadors and translators, we also often summarize overarching messages from research to make them easy for non-scientists to digest and understand:
• Smoking is bad for your health.
• Daily physical activity is good for your health.
• You can take steps to reduce your risk for HIV and other STDs.
I think one of the things that Mr. Grier’s work most shows us is that science can also be messy. Findings from different studies—even replication studies—often show a range of natural variation. One study might find a strong effect, another a weaker one. An intervention that succeeds in an urban setting might have little to no impact in a rural one.
This is one reason we look at as much evidence as possible. When we examine the research on smokefree laws, we find strong and consistent evidence across many studies that these efforts cut heart attacks, ambulance calls, emergency hospital admissions and other diseases.
Stanton Glantz, one of the premiere researchers in the tobacco world, has written a rebuttal to Jacob Grier’s article. He references the 2014 Surgeon General’s report on The Health Consequences of Smoking. In the matter of smokefree laws, he notes, this report, vetted by hundreds of scientists looking at all the available data, concluded “there was a 15% drop in heart attack hospital admissions (with a margin of error of 12-18%).”
Dr. Glantz’s rebuttal is clear and succinct, even if it's not nearly as lively as the original Slate piece. It is, however, a great resource for learning more about some of the impressive findings in tobacco prevention research. And his summarizing point is very easy to digest and understand:
Smokefree laws save lives and they do it quickly.
Narinder Dhaliwal, MA, is the Project Director of ETR’s Tobacco Education Clearinghouse (TECC) and California’s Clean Air Project (CCAP). She works with tobacco control programs throughout California’s 61 health jurisdictions. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.