City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who is co-sponsoring legislation which would ban all smoking in Atlanta parks, was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, “I’m amazed that people will smoke around children and not think twice about it.” She implies that the ban will provide a protection to children, which is currently needed. Let’s examine the validity of that argument, whether such a protection is, in fact, needed and whether the government is in a position to provide that protection effectively.
The crux of the argument assumes that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or “second hand smoke,” poses negative health effects on those breathing it, in this case children. The case is unique in that children do not have the freedom of choice associated with an adult, and therefore cannot choose whether or not to be around an adult who is smoking. This case is true only if the child’s parent is either the one smoking, or complicit in the act of keeping their child around someone who is smoking.
Even assuming that “second hand smoke” provides a clear and immediate health risk, it is not clear that it justifies governmental injunction. It seems entirely reasonable that a parent smoking while outdoors and engaging in physical activity and exercise with their child could have less of a negative health effect on the child than a parent who is indoors watching television with their child and thus not engaging in exercise with the child. Simply put, if you’re playing catch with a kid, you are reducing their chances at being obese. In the absence of any empirical data to the contrary, allowing the parent the right to choose their own actions in one scenario and not the other has no justification in what is best for the child.
Additionally, the risk of “second hand smoke” has been grossly exaggerated by U.S. government agencies and the Surgeon General. A 2003 James Enstrom of UCLA and Geoffrey Kabat of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, study examined the effects of 35,000 never smoking Californians who were married to smokers. The study found that there was no evidential support for a “causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality…” but they do not rule out the possibility of a small effect.
Comparatively, the Surgeon General’s 2006 claim that “even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and increased risk for heart disease and lung cancer” has no basis in scientific fact. It was based on a meta-analysis of previously published studies (no experimental data was collected) and the analysis included a discredited 1992 EPA study. In 1998, a District Court opined that
“In this case, EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun; excluded industry by violating the Act’s procedural requirements; adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency’s public conclusion, and aggressively utilized the Act’s authority to disseminate findings to establish a de facto regulatory scheme intended to restrict Plaintiffs’ products and to influence public opinion. In conducting the ETS Risk Assessment, EPA disregarded information and made findings on selective information; did not disseminate significant epidemiologic information; deviated from its Risk Assessment Guidelines; failed to disclose important findings and reasoning; and left significant questions without answers. EPA’s conduct left substantial holes in the administrative record. While so doing, EPA produced limited evidence, then claimed the weight of the Agency’s research evidence demonstrated ETS causes cancer.”
The inclusion of this clearly biased study in the 2006 meta-analysis casts serious doubt onto the motive and credibility of the overall report, as well as the other sources which were included (or not included) in the report. On top of that, the 2006 meta-analysis relied on reports studying effects of long term exposure. Thus, claiming that even brief exposure to second hand smoke has immediate negative health effects is invalid.
None of this advocates smoking around children, however. Even minor health effects, such as aggravating asthma or general discomfort, should be enough for a parent to consider not smoking around their children. The issue is instead whether the government should compel these parents to a decision not to smoke around their children. Benefits simply are not worth giving up the substantial personal liberty. The scientific evidence does not suggest any immediate danger to the children. Sheperd’s statements are intended to elicit an emotional response, not a rational one.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Atlanta Weighs Smoking Ban for Parks, Public Areas: http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta/committee-sends-smoking-ban-1476002.html
The CDC 2006 Surgeon General’s Report—The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2006/index.htm
Flue-Cured Tobacco Co-op. v. USEPA, 4 F. Supp. 2d 435 – Dist. Court, MD North Carolina 1998: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2013923608547876381&q=Flue-Cured+Tobacco+Coop.+Stabilization+Corp.+v.+U.S.+EPA&hl=en&as_sdt=2,11&as_vis=1
The Case Against Smoking Bans: http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv29n4/v29n4-4.pdf
BMJ Environmental Tobacco Smoke and Tobacco Related Mortality: http://www.bmj.com/content/326/7398/1057.pdf%2Bhtml