Monday, 24 June 2013

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, by Christopher Snowdon

Why I read it: Economist Review

Podcasts: None.

Brow: Upper Middle

Summary: Ever since Columbus discovered it on his first voyage to the Americas, smoking has had its critics. Some were mild, like King James I, who called it 'loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs.' Others, like a Persian despot cut out smokers' tongues or poured lead down their throats. Today's anti-smoking activists fall somewhere in between, though they're getting closer to the Persian, with talk of 'third-hand smoke,' which means nicotine molecules that are transferred from a smoker's body to say, a sofa, then lie there for years until a child sits down and develops lung cancer, and banning smokers from adopting children. Snowdon picks the anti-smoking movement apart, showing us that no study has ever proven a link between second-hand smoke and increased risk of disease of any sort, not that that stops the activists. He then informs us what is in store for us when the zealots move on to their next targets: fatty foods, alcohol and fossil fuels.

What I liked about it: If you had asked me before I read this book, I probably would have been able to tell you that the persecution of smokers has got to the point of insanity. For example, in Ontario, where I'm from, you can no longer smoke in your car if there are children under 16 present. I was once outside a grocery store there and saw signs warning smokes to stay 9 metres from the doors. I also probably would have agreed that the actual risk of exposure for non-smokers is pretty minimal. But I had never really thought about it, or considered how the kind of thinking that led to these kinds of policies will never stop, even after we have all given up eating meat, drinking wine and driving. Then they'll move on to our other vices like using diapers, or having children at all, for that matter, and pretty much anything else that makes your life easier or more enjoyable.

What I didn't like about it: When he gets to the end of his smoking argument and gets into defending people's right to buy fatty foods, Snowdon gets a bit lost in the woods. I agree with him that no one holds a gun to your head and forces you to buy the child sized 512-ounce soda from Paunch Burger. I also agree with him that there is no demonstrated harm to being overweight, at least, not until you become morbidly obese. But I disagree with him when he argues that all that is needed is for the government to encourage people to make sensible choices and moderate their intake of fatty foods and sugary drinks. Just look at this map to see how, in 1985, no state had an obesity rate of more than 15%. In 2010, no state had a rate less than 20%. It's quite clear that anti-smoking-style information campaigns are not having an effect on waistlines.

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