Debating against anti-smokers

Anti-smokers and ban advocates often resort to overblown and exaggerated statistics, logical fallacies, and downright mean-spiritedness to make their case. This isn't surprising, because the facts simply aren't on their side. Most of their arguments are already debunked elsewhere on this site, but we're providing a short version here in one place for your convenience.

Prohibitionist Carrie Nation, pictured left, wanted cigarettes to be illegal in addition to alcohol. "Men are nicotine-soaked, beer-besmirched, whiskey-greased red-eyed devils," she said. "I want all hellions to quit puffing that hell fume in God's clean air." Nation, who had a family history of mental illness, died in a sanatorium in 1911.


If you find yourself debating an anti-smoker on facebook, a news article comments section, or Internet message board, use these points to WIN.

1: Smoking bans curb smoking.

False. Covered here. Additionally, smoking rates across the world have either stagnated or gone up since smoking bans were enacted. In Ireland, for example, the smoking rate increased to an 11-year high--that's up to a third of the population--after the country enacted its ban.

2: Smoking bans save society money.

False. The rationale behind this argument is that smoking bans reduce smoking, which is also false (see #1). The hidden argument here is that smokers cost society money. This is unequivocally false; smokers pay for themselves through taxes on cigarettes with plenty to spare. As the New England Journal of Medicine put it: "...in a population in which no one smoked the costs would be 7% higher among men and 4% higher among women than the costs in the current mixed population of smokers and non-smokers... complete smoking cessation would produce a net increase in health care costs."

Perhaps what "costs society money" is how this surplus money is misused; We humbly suggest it be used on (legitimate) cancer research.

From "The Proposed Tobacco Settlement: Who Pays for the Health Costs of Smoking:"
"Smoking has apparently brought financial gain to both the federal and state governments, especially when tobacco taxes are taken into account. In general, smokers do not appear to currently impose net financial costs on the rest of society."

From "Smokers' burden on society: Myth and reality in Canada:"
"Net additional external costs borne by non-smokers worked out to $244 million for Canada in 1986. However, smokers are responsible for a much larger flow in the other direction... Finally, the massive tax burden borne by smokers alone means that they account for a further transfer of close to $3.2 billion to the benefit of non-smokers."

From "Social cost and the cigarette excise tax: A misguided rationale for an inefficient and unfair policy:"
"The widespread belief that smokers do not pay their own way is the result of repeated assertions that are totally lacking in empirical support. There is simply no evidence that smokers impose costs on others by making more use of medical care than do nonsmokers."

From "Confusing, misleading CDC figures on economic costs of smoking:"
"On balance, most studies find that smokers cost the government less in terms of health care outlays than the sum of what they save the government in unclaimed retirement benefits and pay the government in tobacco taxes at existing tax rates."

From "Does smoking increase medical care expenditure:"
"The results imply that smoking does not increase medical care expenditure and, therefore, reducing smoking is unlikely to decrease it."

The important takeaway from the above studies is that despite these facts, anti-smokers want people to think smokers impose a burden on society.

3: Smoking bans are good for business

False. Covered here. The amount of people who are so against smoking that they refused to set foot in smoke-friendly establishments pre-ban was miniscule. Smoking bans are bad for business, according to the Michigan Restaurant Association, the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, numerous financial impact studies, and actual business owners.

Variation: "The bar I never used to go to has been packed ever since the ban!"
This could well be an attempt to disguise the true financial devastation inflicted by bans. If every bar and restaurant in town has gone under except one, then yes--that one establishment will likely be busier than it was pre-ban. Meanwhile, customers have lost options, employees have lost jobs, and the state has lost revenue.

4: Anti-smoking organizations/ban advocates have no reason to mislead.

False. Covered here and here.It can be said that ban advocates have immense financial motivations to imply secondhand smoke is harmful. Smoking bans may not reduce smoking (see #1), but they certainly make smokers try to quit--sending them directly into the arms of mega-pharmaceuticals that make nicotine gum and other try-to-quit smoking products. These pharmaceuticals donate millions to anti-smoking organizations, and have also donated large "campaign contributions" to legislators. These may serve as investments with colossal payoffs, both to drug companies and to the anti-smoking organizations they finance.

5: This ban is a reflection of what the public wants.

False. Covered here. The only polls which indicate widespread support for smoking bans seem to come from anti-smoking organizations, ban advocates, and health departments. Remember, Michigan's smoking ban is one of the strictest in existence. Most nonsmokers have no issue with the concept of separate, well-ventilated smoking sections designated age 21 and up, and most nonsmokers have no issue with allowing smoking on outdoor patios.

6: The dangers of SHS are a scientifically-accepted fact.

False. A growing number of scientists are stepping forward to state that the "science" behind the dangers is junk (covered here). A "fact" is defined as something beyond dispute. When it comes to secondhand smoke, the so-called risk associations are about as far from "factual" as you can get!

7: The overwhelming majority of studies prove SHS is dangerous.

False. Covered here. Regarding cancer, the majority of studies show correlations that are so weak they would be dismissed if the subject were anything else and present a much more compelling argument as to secondhand smoke's harmlessness in this regard. The general rule of thumb that a relative risk should exceed at least a 2.0 is by necessity disregarded by anti-smoking organizations to make this argument.

There's a much stronger case to be made that electromagnetic radiation from power lines is a cancer-causing agent, for example, yet the data still isn't strong enough for the EPA to classify power lines as cancer-causing agents. Hair dryers and cell phones also constitute greater relative risks than secondhand smoke, but the data is still not strong enough for them to be considered dangerous, either. It's a double-standard resulting from pressure from anti-smoking organizations (and for more on them, see #4).

Variation: "This particular study proves it - here's a link!"

8: There are 4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke!

Deceptive. Covered here. Most of those 4,000 chemicals are completely harmless at any level. The rest are certainly harmless at the levels found in real-world situations, a fact established by OSHA and verified in tests around the globe. The "4,000" trick is used to scare those who don't know better.

If 4,000 still seems like a large enough number to be concerned about, realize the average daily diet consists of 10,000 chemicals, some of which are also found in secondhand smoke--which, according to the Surgeon General, is 90% water. This brings to mind the old dihydrogen monoxide (water, H2O) joke. With a little clever wordplay you can make any substance seem dangerous without much effort.

9: There is no safe level of secondhand smoke.

False. Covered here. This statement is flies in the face of a fundamental rule of toxicology: that the poison is in the dose. Eating too much vitamin D might be unsafe--but does that mean vitamin D is unsafe at any level? Of course not. See also #7, 8, and 27.

10: Ventilation cannot protect patrons and employees from SHS.

False. Covered here. Allowing smoking does not make the air hazardous to the general public to begin with. See #6, 7, 8, and 9. Additionally, even the smokiest, most unventilated dive bars don't come anywhere near OSHA's permissible exposure levels (PELs). A nonsmoker would need to be trapped in a small, unventilated place with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of smokers before even approaching unsafe levels, which is of course impossible.

11: The air is now "safer," "cleaner," or "healthier" because of the ban

False. Covered here. The air in smoking-friendly establishments before the ban wasn't dangerous to the general public to begin with (see #6,7,8, 9, and 10). In fact, establishments were much more likely to be running ventilation pre-ban than they are now. Because of this, the air in many places is now much more likely to be contaminated with particles that actually are dangerous, such as mold, formaldehyde, airborne viruses and bacteria, not to mention common asthma and allergy triggers. So much for clean air. (see also #27).


Anti-smoking catch phrases

Once you've countered one or two of the points above, your opposition will either give up or skip the formalities and dive right into the rhetoric. It's astonishing. We've spent hundreds of hours combing through comments and message boards only to see the following statements again and again and again.

12: I have the right to breathe clean air!

For starters, there is no such thing. Air is polluted everywhere, by substances which are actually harmful. Perhaps what anti-smokers mean to say here is "I have the right to go anywhere I want and not see or smell things I don't like." See also #6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 29.

13: I have the right to go to a public place and not breathe smoke

This is little more than an excuse to use the phrase "breathe smoke." See also #3, 10, 11, and 12. Furthermore, bars and restaurants are private - not public - property, and according to the Supreme Court they do not lose their private character just because the owner invites people in. Covered here.

14: Smoking bans respect the rights of ALL people--smokers and nonsmokers

No, smoking bans respect the "rights" of only a small group of people. Before the ban, each business owner had the right to choose whether or not to allow smoking. No one was forced to allow it. No one was forced to patronize any establishment. No one was forced to work at any establishment. Everyone had a choice, but the ban has taken choice away from everyone.

15: Health departments have the right to act for the protection of patrons/workers

Variation: "It's a public health issue."

Health departments' focus relating to the food service industry is to help minimize exposure to microbes and organisms that could have direct and immediate health effects. Secondhand smoke has no such effect. See also #6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 27, and especially #11.

16: There are far more important things to worry about

When debating bans before they're enacted, anti-smokers treat them as if they're the most important issue ever to face humanity. Once they're passed, they'll often claim it's unimportant to talk about it--or think about it--any further. Business owners, smokers, and their friends and loved ones beg to differ.

17: You're just selfish for wanting to scale back the ban

We support a reasonable compromise to one of the strictest smoking bans in existence: that outdoor patios and designated 21-and-up indoor areas be exempt if that's what the owner wants. No one's talking about forcing all business owners to allow smoking. Letting the property owners decide based upon the desires of the majority of their customers (between 83% and 89% according to our poll on the issue) is not selfish.

18: If you don't support a smoking ban, you're supporting "big tobacco"

The anti-smoking industry adopted a strategy of vilifying tobacco companies in the 90s; a public relations tactic to counter the widespread belief their true motive was hostility toward smokers. Two decades later, they've dropped the pretense, and are now unashamedly openly hostile toward smokers.

In any case, this argument presupposes that smoking bans reduce smoking and that a rollback would increase smoking. This is untrue--the smoking rate in Michigan has not been influenced by the ban. (see #1).

19: So-and-so got lung cancer from secondhand smoke

Covered here. There is not one documented death from secondhand smoke--not one. Not even anti-smoking organizations pretend they can name anyone who has died from it.

See Dave Hitt's "Name Three." An excerpt: when asked to name three victims of secondhand smoke, the American Lung Association responded, "we do not have names, however, we do have scientifically proven studies that document that secondhand smoke exposure has been direct!" The quote, like most statements given by pro-ban organizations, has no actual meaning when you look at it closely. See also #6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.

Variation: "This has been proven in autopsies!" This is also false. The amount of Americans autopsied is miniscule--roughly 8.5%. Even then, autopsies are less likely to be performed for disease conditions than due to external causes.

20: A smoking section in a restaurant is like a peeing section in a swimming pool

In use since the early 1980s, this oft-repeated catch phrase may be attention-grabbing, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. A person can't tell upon entering a swimming pool if someone has urinated in it, but people can easily tell upon entering a restaurant or bar if people are smoking--and can therefore choose to turn around and walk away.

Additionally, a swimming pool changes its water about once a year. A decently-ventilated restaurant changes its air roughly 50,000 times a year. Using the anti-smokers' tactic of magnifying numbers by changing them into percentages, the "peeing in a swimming pool" sound bite is exaggerated by a factor of five million percent!

21: A proprietor who allows smoking is like a proprietor who punches his customers in the face

This catch-phrase has been around since at least the early 90s. It neglects to mention that businesses which allow smoking are occupied only by those who choose to enter voluntarily. You could just as easily say that a flower shop owner allowing flowers on their property is like an owner punching people with asthma in the face.

22: Smoking bans are for the protection of workers.

False. Covered here. OSHA has established that secondhand smoke is safe for work. Secondly, no employee is forced to work in any business. And protection against what, exactly (see also #6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 27). Given that secondhand smoke is nothing more than an irritant at worst, one could just as credibly argue flower shops shouldn't allow flowers for the sake of employees with asthma or allergies! We have members in our group who are allergy and asthma sufferers and take offense to being propped up as unwitting martyrs by anti-smokers in this way.

Variation: "The #1 killer in the workplace is secondhand smoke."
Actually, the Bureau of Labor Statistics readily admits it's impossible to know if any worker's illness was brought on by their surroundings or environmental factors at work. Information on work-related fatal illnesses are not reported in BLS tracking records; they're excluded because the incubation period of many occupational illnesses and the difficulty in actually linking them with work environments.

23: Smoking bans are for the protection of the children.

Our very reasonable compromise solution would allow smoking in outdoor patios and designated indoor 21-and-up areas. Regardless, secondhand smoke is not harmful to the general public; no matter how long the exposure (see also #6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 22). It's worth noting here that the World Health Organization's 1998 study on secondhand smoke resulted in a statistically significant negative relative risk (i.e., a "protective effect"), on children. The results indicated children who grow up with parents who smoke in the home are 22% less likely to develop lung cancer than those who grow up in nonsmoking homes. (see also #27).

24: Arguments about direct smoking

This is to confuse the issue. Actual smoking can be harmful, sure--but secondhand smoke is not.

Variation: "My relative died from smoking--so let's ban it from bars, etc."
This tactic is often implemented in local city meetings about bans as a means to gain sympathy, even though, again, it has nothing to do with secondhand smoke.

25: I'm not going back to the casino--there were smokers there!

We all know what fun-loving party animals anti-smokers are. Now that Michigan's ban limits smoking to tribal (and non-tribal Detroit) casinos, anti-smokers are apparently suddenly frequenting these locales and never going back. Unsatisfied with getting smoking banned nearly everywhere, they're now complaining about the (very) few places it's still allowed. This jives rather smoothly with the "no-compromises" rule adopted by anti-smoking organizations regarding smoking bans. More information about Michigan's casino exemptions can be found here. See also #3.

26: Name-calling

When it comes to anti-smoking arguments, you'll come across name-calling and ad-hominym attacks far more often than anything else. Your best course of action is to remain calm and not stoop to their level. In fact, during any debate on the subject you should always employ the "get-them-with-kindness" technique (it works, trust us). If they get angry and start name-calling (provided you don't), it means you're winning.

27: Secondhand smoke bothers my asthma/allergies/other conditions

See our positions.

28: Smokers are just addicts--why should anyone listen to what they have to say?

Another common attempt by anti-smokers to draw the focus away from their own weak arguments about smoking bans and disparage smokers in the process. There are a few things to note here; first, anti-smokers will commonly try to use this argument when it suits them, but use the "why don't they just quit?" or "why can't they just wait ten minutes to smoke?" argument when that suits them.

Variation: Why don't you just quit?
Most Michigan residents oppose the ban, whether they smoke or not. Most non-smokers aren't anti-smokers (see also #5).

Variation: Can't smokers just wait ten minutes?
That's a decision which should be left up to those who own the property.

Variation: The fact that smokers want the ban scaled back certainly shows how addicted they are to smoking.
Again, most Michigan residents oppose the ban as-is, whether they smoke or not. Most non-smokers aren't anti-smokers (see also #5).

29: Secondhand smoke is more dangerous than smoking itself

You'd have to suck it up through a straw for this to be true. Once tobacco smoke mixes with air (which is almost immediately as it is released) it becomes harmless to the general public--even in massive, unventilated quantities. See #6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.

30: I'm a business owner, and I support the ban

Why would a business owner would support a law which forbids them from making a choice they already had before? At first thought, it makes no sense, but the answer's simple.

If, before the ban, the owner ran a smoke-free establishment (by their own choice) doing so might have kept customers away. After the ban was enacted, potential customers previously frequenting other locales (which are now out of business) have fewer options.

Scaling back the ban would give customers more options; the pro-ban business owner is worried about its competition flourishing after a rollback (see also #3).

31: No one's talking about prohibition here...

Yes, actually, they are - just not all at once. Ban advocates are already talking about expanding the ban to encompass other privately-owned property such as cars, apartments, and homes. Most anti-smoking groups have information stating as much in documents readily available online. If they succeed, it will have been because they were able to use the current smoking ban as a precedent. After all, they say, if it's banned in this privately-owned property, why's it still legal in that privately-owned property?

32: Your rights end where my nose begins

Not when you're on property owned by someone else. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner that a place of business does not become "public" just because the public is invited in ("...Nor does property lose its private character merely because the public is generally invited to use it for designated purposes").

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that, though freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed to all U.S. citizens, it does not supercede private property rights. (This means, for example, that bar owners can kick someone out even if they're attempting to make a political speech). Freedom of speech is certainly in the Constitution, yet the right to not smell certain smells when you voluntarily enter someone else's property is nowhere to be found there.

Bars, restaurants, pool halls, bowling alleys and the like are privately owned; occupied only by those who choose to enter, including employees. No one is forced to patronize or work on any given piece of privately-owned property, and at no time does that property become a public space. The choice of whether or not to allow smoking, which is a legal activity, to take place on private property should be restored to the owners of such property.


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