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Friday, September 01, 2006


On motion to ban smoking in public places
Section (a) of this motion calls on us to support it only if the case is clearly proven. It isn't. A BMJ statistical analysis found only slight statistical significance when 48 studies were combined. Looked at separately only seven showed significant excesses of lung cancer meaning 41 did not.Further the combined risk was merely 24 percent, also called a "relative risk" of 1.24. Such tiny relative risks are considered meaningless, given the myriad pitfalls in epidemiological studies. "As a general rule of thumb" says the editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine Marcia Angell, "we are looking for a relative risk of 3 or more" before even accepting a paper for publication.According to the National Cancer Institute "Relative risks of less than 2 are considered small & are usually difficult to interpret. Such increases may be due to chance, statistical bias or the effect of some other not evident." The main exception to that rule comes when the study is extremely large, but such was not the case with the BMJ analysis. The studies showing excess disease comprised only 1,388 people in total. By contrast a recent study implicating obesity as a cause of early death contained more than three hundred & twenty THOUSAND subjects.

So where does this leave us? Do we know passive smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. No. But we do know that either it does not, or that if it does the risk is so tiny as to be unmeasureable. Does this mean that passive smoking poses no health risks? No. It makes sense that it would aggravate asthma if nothing else. Does it mean that just because smokers arn't murdering other people, they're not still engaged in a nasty, expensive habit that greatly increases their own chances of sickness & premature death? Definitely not. But it does mean that we cannot legitimately limit people's freedom on the basis of this alleged risk to others. Over the next few years Ireland & New York will be able to produce substantial statistical populations & they may prove the banner's case. Or they may disprove it. Or & this is my bet, modern air extraction systems, which can remove 96% of smoke, may be proven effective. We shall see.

Some years ago, to the obvious embarassment of the leadership, the federal party voted to examine lightening the criminal burden on cannabis users. I remember a TV news programme immediately after in which a Mr Michael Howard said we were wrong because nobody should ever, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever even think about thinking about any sort of reform. With it's well known commitment to balance the BBC then interviewed his shadow, Mr Jack Straw who said his opinion was a little more hardline than that.(pause for laughter - none came - this is a tough audience) He has clearly changed his mind.I was very proud of our party that day. It seemed to me that we were acting in the best traditions of classic Liberalism. Having been the first to call for some decriminalisation of cannabis, despite some dubious medical claims, I would be sorry to see us leading the way towards the effective criminalisation of tobacco.Thus I urge you to reject this motion.
(they passed it by a large majority - we will see)(I would like to acknowledge that the section "A BMJ ......... Definitely not" was listed almost verbatim from site I reccomend to anybody who believes themselves a free thinker on environmental subjects)________________________________________________

This is also reprinted from my November 2004 archive to be made more accessible. Since then, of course, the ban has been brought in. Less is now said about passive smoking as a proven major health risk & more about the "right" of non-smokers not to be in the vicinity of smokers, without having to stand outside, or indeed in a pub that chooses to go non-smoking.

Success in this venture is entirely measured in terms of enforcement rather than in whether the promised 1,000 lives a year are being saved. There has been no mention of investigations, if any, into whether there has been a great reduction in passive smoking deaths in New York or Ireland.

To be fair to the SLD it is worth pointing out that though I was the only person who spoke directly against the ban but that a number of others spoke for a partial ban on, I suspect, a tactical basis.

Neil my recollections of that debate were that 50% of speeched were against the proposal and 50% for.

You were not the sole objector.
No. There was an amendment to the motion to allow a 2 tier system with some smoking & some no smoking pubs & several people spoke to it. I will grant that some of these may have done so tacticaly thinking that a direct negative would fail. I will also grant that, while such a limited ban is open to abuse & not really very sensible I would have accepted it as a realistic compromise (such is the way with politics) - but nonetheless thought that tactically putting the pure case was worth doing & likely to enhance the chance of compromise.

Nonetheless I was quite surprised to be called as first anti-speaker & it was only then that I realised nobody else (or more senior) was speaking directly against. This is why I qualified the word "against" with "directly" on my blog.
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