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Skeptic arguments about cigarette smoke - sound familiar?

Posted on 20 February 2011 by mactheknife

It is broadly accepted nowadays that smoking is a health hazard and tobacco companies have been forced to put warning messages on smoke packets. Smoking is banned inside public buildings. Smoking is a proven hazard to health and is linked to over 40 diseases. However for years misinformation was peddled by vested interests and even actors were paid to smoke in order to encourage smoking.

Below are common arguments peddled by climate change sceptics and vested interests but phrased in terms of the smoking debate. Drawing comparisons between smoking and climate in this way may be helpful in demonstrating how misguided some of these arguments are. I have included just a few of the associated global warming arguments but I think you will get what I mean.

1. I know someone who is 90, has smoked heavily all his life and he is as healthy as anyone I know. So if smoking is as dangerous as they say it is why is he alright? There cannot be a direct link. There must be other factors leading to cancer so till we are 100% sure we should not ban anything.

This is similar to the argument which questions why as CO2 increases steadily does temperature not also increase steadily? Doesn’t this mean CO2 cannot be responsible? As we cannot link events directly with CO2 and warming it is unproven. CO2 was higher before and it wasn't warmer then!

2. Anyway smoke is a naturally occurring substance in the environment. It has been around for thousands of years. Actually fire and smoke is necessary for some plants and seeds to grow in parts of Australia. It is vital so what can be wrong with smoke?

This is similar to the argument that climate has been changing for thousands of years so what is new? CO2 is also natural so it cannot be harmful and in fact is essential to life. Increasing levels of CO2 is good for us. It actually improves crop yield so how can CO2 be a problem?

3. Waterborne diseases are the largest culprit of death and morbidity in the third world. This puts the whole thing in perspective. There are far more influential factors in causes of death than smoking. Actually old age appears to be correlated with death more so than smoking.

This is similar to saying that the sun and the clouds all have far greater effects on the climate than a trace gas of CO2. Levels of CO2 are negligible so cannot have any effect on climate.

4. They reckon the poisonous chemicals in cigarettes can cause emphysema and bronchitis, heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and cancer, hearing and vision loss, Arthritis, Diarrhoea, Wrinkles, Peptic ulcers, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, kidney and liver damage, oesophageal, laryngeal, lung, oral, and throat cancers, sudden infant death syndrome. Counter argument: Yes but all of these conditions have many other causes and people who never smoke get these as well. So there is a failure to prove actual causation.

This is similar to the sceptic saying there is no proof that CO2 causes warming because so many weather events; storms, cyclones, drought, intense precipitation, ice melting have been there since year dot so how do we know if it is because of warming- its natural. How is cat 5 cyclone Yasi any different from the cat 5 in 1870?

5. By current estimates, tobacco use causes 440,000 deaths per year and costs about $157 billion in health–related losses. On average, men who smoke cut their lives short by 13.2 years, and female smokers lose 14.5 years. Since the 1964 surgeon general’s report, more than 12 million people have died from smoking–related illness. Counter argument: How can this be proved? No one knows when they are going to die so how can anyone say their life is shortened by this or that amount? What about the chap who lived over 100? Was his life shortened by 13.2 years? Not likely.

This is like saying the models cannot predict weather accurately for regions so how can we take them seriously. We all know extreme events have killed many in the past before warming so the latest examples don’t mean anything special. Its all a beat up.

6. People have been smoking various substances in many communities around the globe for thousands of years. So smoking tobacco is a normal practice in many parts of the world so how can it be bad for you?

This is like saying climate has changed before anyway. All variations in climate are normal and are nothing more than what has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. It has been warm before.

7. We can all relate stories about people we know who get cancer but have never smoked. So cancer is caused by things other than smoking. This “proves” that smoking is not the “bad” thing it is made out to be.

This is similar to the sceptic suggesting that we have had catastrophic weather events ie hurricanes and cyclones before so just because we get severe events again does not prove it is due to warming. We will get these events anyway.

The arguments used here may seem reasonable and beguiling but they are misguided. They appear to contradict the well documented fact that smoking is a health hazard. So they must be invalid arguments. As "smoking is dangerous" clearly cannot be rebutted by these arguments, how could analogous arguments rebut climate change?

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. Oh, I sure recognize the first argument about cigarette smoke. I've heard it a lot of times. Great comparison between the arguments!
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  2. Good work Mac. A small point - "Actually fire and smoke is necessary for some plants and seeds to grow in parts of Australia" - isn't true. It would be more accurate to say that "the growth and germination of many plants all over the world can be enhanced by smoke sometimes". This smoke thing isn't an adaptation of Australian plants, isn't an adaptation to fire, and isn't related to smoke from burning Australian vegetation. Your point is still valid (smoke, like CO2, is "good for plants") though.
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  3. Nice post. It's especially relevant as the same people who put together the defense of cigarette smoking are working hard against the science of AGW. Here's one more: If everyone stopped smoking, it would put all those tobacco farmers out of work and that would harm the economy; that shows up at Economic impacts of carbon pricing.
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  4. Just read RJR CEO Colin Stokes' letter introducing Frederick Seitz as the head of the tobacco industry's medical research program. See if any of Stokes' arguments sound familier.
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  5. I might add another argument in favour of smoking:
    8. Smoking suppresses your appetite and helps keep you thin. We hear all the time about how obesity is nowadays the worlds worst public health problem, yet the fat alarmists never tell us how many lives are saved by tobacco keeping us trim.
    Similar in some ways to the argument that cold kills more than seven times as many as heat does. I'm not sure if that particular argument has been rebutted here or not. Perhaps this: Heat stress: setting an upper limit on what we can adapt to
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  6. Climate skeptic Richard Lindzen has testified in court that the link between tobacco and cancer is not proven.
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  7. I think it's pretty obvious that a lack of smoking causes global warming. Think about it. People started to back away from smoking around the late seventies. When did the current warming trend appear to start? The only way to stop global warming is to push tobacco products (and to keep using fossil fuels).
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  8. Smoking is unhealthy in typical quantities but may have homeopathic qualities in very small quantities explaining the 'health smoker' anecdotes, see for an anecdote (it's hard to find studies of homeopathy). One might think "if climate change doesn't kill you it makes you stronger". But that does not seem to be true for amphibians, see The analogy might be like this: occasional exposure to cigarette smoke is probably not harmful and may even be helpful; likewise occasional exposure to severe weather probably builds resilience. Constant exposure is almost certainly bad in both cases since there is no time to recover and strengthen.
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  9. If "homeopathy" were the mechanism, then those who didn't smoke would be the ones getting the strongest protection from tobacco's medicinal properties. That's how homeopathy works, you dilute the substance in water and it gets stronger as the solution gets weaker, until the recommended level of dilution is such that there's probably no trace of the original ingredients in the water at all.
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  10. @Sphaerica: Good point. Smoking puts more particulate matter in to the atmosphere, which, in turn, reflects incomming sunlight, thus cooling the earth. So, if you care about global warming, smoke 'em if you've got 'em!
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  11. A poor attempt to tar all sceptics with the big tobacco brush.
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    Moderator Response: [Daniel Bailey] Mac is making use of analogy; taking a generalization to be all-inclusionary does not necessarily follow. Nice mental imagery, though, with the "tar" & "tobacco brush" verbiage.
  12. Michael sweet: "Climate skeptic Richard Lindzen has testified in court that the link between tobacco and cancer is not proven." I hadn't heard that. Was that in "Merchants of Doubt"?
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  13. Another analogy is "everyone knows co2 causes warming, but it's not enough to warrant alarm or government regulation"~"everyone knows smoking causes cancer, but 2nd hand smoke is not nearly strong enough to cause problems or warrant government regulation".
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  14. Here's a good link illustrating "the tobacco strategy" as used by AGW deniers.
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  15. If you want to take the analogy further, look at the dilemma of a smoker trying to ignore the implications of their habit. Compare this to governments facing their CO2 addiction.
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  16. This post is on the right track, but it is high time for all to become aware of generic denialism.
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