The British people like being lied to. That, at least, is the lesson I draw from the overwhelming popular support for the decision by the House of Commons to ban smoking in all public places - and in private clubs.
That decision, taken by an overwhelming majority of our elected representative was justified by one simple, stark claim: that non-smokers are at significant risk of contracting lung cancer from the effects of what scientists call "Environmental Tobacco Smoke" and what everyone else calls passive smoking. That claim is simply untrue.
The largest and most detailed epidemiological study on ETS and tobacco-related mortality ever to appear in a medical journal was published in March 2003 by the British Medical Journal, whose editorial board was sufficiently impressed by the paper to flag it on the front cover under the headline "Passive Smoking May Not Kill". The study by Professor James Enstrom of the School of Public Health at California University, and Assistant Professor Geoffrey Kabat of the Department of Preventive Health at the State University of New York was based on a 39-year survey of 118,000 Californians originally recruited by the American Cancer Society in 1959.
Enstrom and Kabat's conclusion, in a nutshell, was: "The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco-related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect."
If you want to read the full report, then you can look it up on the BMJ website.
What you will also see there is a deluge of e-mails bordering on the abusive from Enstrom and Kabat's colleagues in the field of public health research. My rough calculation is that about 3 per cent of the criticism deals with the actual data in the paper, and none appear to have demonstrated a flaw in the data.
The argument of the critics essentially divide into two. One group says that it is bad for the public's health for such a paper to be published. This seems to me, at the very least, unscientific and therefore unprofessional. The other group points out that the last few years of Enstrom and Kabat's work were funded in part by British American Tobacco.
The authors point out in reply, first that they are renowned epidemiologists of almost 30 years' standing, and second, that the earlier years of their study was financed by the US Tobacco-Related Disease and Research Programme.
The TRDRP, it seems, refused to continue its funding when it became aware of the direction the research was taking.
This attitude by official bodies in the field of public health is not, alas, unusual. In 1998 the World Health Organisation published research on passive smoking with a press release headlined "Don't Let Them Fool You: Passive Smoking DOES Cause Cancer".
However, the study itself showed no statistically significant results to justify that headline and the only statistically valid conclusion reached by the study was that the children of smokers had a lung cancer rate 22 per cent LOWER than children of non-smokers.
The official abstract characterised that statistic as having "no association": as one commentator pointed out at the time, just imagine what the WHO would have put on its press release if the opposite conclusion had been reached by the survey.
At that time, when I was editor of The Sunday Telegraph, the paper, under the headline "Passive Smoking Doesn't Cause Cancer - Official", revealed that the WHO had initially kept under wraps the results of its latest research into passive smoking in seven countries, which showed not only that there was probably no link between passive smoking and lung cancer, but that it might even have a protective effect.
Action on Smoking and Health - but not, interestingly, the WHO - made a formal complaint, on grounds of inaccuracy, to the Press Complaints Commission. After an exhaustive investigation, lasting several months, the PCC rejected the complaint.
I understand, and actually have some sympathy with, ASH's campaign. They regard the cigarette manufacturers as merchants of death, and want to see them closed down for good. But the medically proven fact, that it is only through actually smoking cigarettes that you can contract smoking-related lung cancer, does not demolish the familiar libertarian argument: it's my health and if I choose to damage it, that's my right as a free citizen in a free country.
If ASH and other anti-tobacco groups could persuade the public that smokers are not just victims but also killers, then their case is made.
Indeed, it seems to me that if it were true that smokers are killers, then there is a very strong argument for making cigarette smoking absolutely illegal. What has been decided by the House of Commons is absurd. Even in private clubs, consenting adults will not be allowed to smoke together; instead they will be exiled to their own homes, where they can blow smoke at their defenceless children as much as they want.
Perhaps the ultimate absurdity is the fact that the nation's politicians have been deciding whether or not to ban smoking in drinking clubs; in a more rational world, they would have been discussing a ban on drinking in smoking clubs. For there can be no doubt that alcohol is a much more pernicious social evil than tobacco.
No one crashes his car into other people as a result of smoking. No one beats his wife as a result of the effects of nicotine. No one assaults or murders someone else under the influence of tobacco. No one - despite the best efforts of ASH - terrorises his own children because of his cigarette consumption. But the beaten wife, the terrified children, the young widow - many thousands of these can be described as passive drinkers.
Having cast doubt on the statistical claims of the anti-smoking lobby, I must be careful in my claims about the effects of alcohol abuse. But the most generally accepted figure is that about three-quarters of all violent injuries are linked in some way to alcohol. Even if it were half that, it would be a scandal.
It's worth watching Hardeep Does ... Drinking next week on Channel 4, by the way, if you can bear to see some of the alcoholic excesses of the nation's youth, such as a girl in Colchester drinking an entire bucket of wine at a pub, to celebrate her... pregnancy.
Perhaps I should add that while I don't smoke, I do drink. And I don't actually believe that either smoking or drinking should be made illegal.
But although I am reasonably sure that there are very, very few fatal victims of passive smoking, I am absolutely certain that the nation's morgues are full of the victims of passive drinking - and getting fuller.Reuse content