Archive for July, 2006

Smoking Bans: the Oregonian’s Sloppy Reporting

July 1, 2006

The Surgeon General’s recent report on secondhand smoke prompted the Oregonian to resurrect its editorial diatribe in favor of banning all smoking in bars (and bingo halls). The newspaper’s line of reasoning, found in two recent editorials on the subject, is so thoughtless it doesn’t acknowledge the chief objection to a ban. Even accepting the Oregonian’s assumptions, the editorials (and reporting) on the subject are misleading.

The main objection to banning smoking in places open to adults is just that: they are for adults. Bars, bingo halls and the like, are intended for people who are responsible for their decisions, including the decision to go where people smoke. Whether the health risks of such environments are worth the rewards is a question adults are entitled to answer for themselves.

So the objection to a smoking ban is not health-based, despite the Oregonian’s disingenuous assumption to the contrary. Few people (outside the tobacco industry or talk-radio) have staked much on the belief that second-hand smoke is harmless. The objection is libertarian: the model for society should not be that we are babies and the government is our mommy. You decide which risks and rewards are appropriate for your own life: You’re a grown-up.

Critics often try to suggest there is less choice than there appears. The Oregonian suggested that bars can’t be voluntarily nonsmoking and commercially successful. The Oregonian should read itself: two days prior, it profiled the Lucky Lab on Hawthorne, commenting that the business was opening its third branch. The Lucky Lab is nonsmoking. The Oregonian doesn’t appear to have researched, in any way, its assertion that access to nonsmoking bars can only be achieved by a ban.

Working in a bar is not a choice, we are told, because people have to work. From that general principle, we must infer that the food you eat is not a choice, because people have to eat. In extreme cases, our fundamental needs are restrict us–stranded on a desert island, maybe you have to eat bugs. But if that’s the model for earning a living in our society, we have deeper problems than smoking in bars.

The Surgeon General’s report occasionally refers to secondhand smoke as “involuntary smoking.” The word-choice is odd, considering the need to avoid rhetoric in a medical report (it might be valid in describing children exposed in the home). Does the Surgeon General also think bars cause “involuntary” exposure to alcohol consumption? Such involuntary exposure must be a terrible hardship for alcoholics, since they are often harmed by being around drinking. Do we say they are forced to hang out in bars (and apply for bartending jobs)?

In addition to misunderstanding the topic, the Oregonian misrepresented the science. The Surgeon General’s report says that ventilation and nonsmoking sections can reduce exposure to secondhand smoke (which in turn reduces risk), but they cannot eliminate exposure. The Oregonian presented this finding as “nonsmoking sections don’t work.” The Surgeon General’s report characterizes the risk of lung cancer as “slightly or moderately increased” and “a small elevation.” The Oregonian doesn’t mention this degree of risk increase. The Oregonian characterizes the report as “a study 20 years in the making.” The report contains no original research, but is a meta-analysis of previously published material, some of it decades old. The Oregonian trumpets the claim that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. It doesn’t mention that short-term exposure generally lead to short-term risk, often due to preexisting medical conditions (e.g. asthma). In this sense, it is equally true that “there is no risk-free level of exposure” to pollen, or dust.

And so on. There is little evidence anyone at the Oregonian actually read the report (their article was purchased from a newswire). Science and statistics tend to be complicated. Mainstream media tends be simplistic. The results are predictable.

The gist of the matter is this. If you don’t want to go to bars where people smoke, don’t. If you can’t find a nonsmoking bar you like, find something to do besides hanging out in bars. If you don’t want to work in bars with smokers, don’t apply for those jobs. If you can’t find a bar where you want to work, don’t apply for jobs in bars. Meanwhile, let other people with different views make different choices. That is how a free society works.