For Your Own Good

Peter Kurth reviews 'For Your Own Good' by Jacob Sullum

By Peter Kurth
Published April 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Before you read any further, folks, I'd advise you to lock your doors. Close the windows and draw the blinds. You're about to hear something you're not supposed to know.

"There is no evidence," writes Jacob Sullum in "For Your Own Good," his trenchant analysis of the anti-smoking movement in America, "that casual exposure to second-hand smoke has any impact on your life expectancy." People who live for years with heavy smokers, it's true, run a slightly higher risk of developing lung cancer than people who don't, raising the "lifetime risk," Sullum tells us, "from about 0.34 percent to about 0.41 percent." Neither is there any convincing data to support the claim that smoking imposes a disproportionate financial burden on society, or that advertising, even when aimed at kids, "plays an important role in getting people to smoke, as opposed to getting them to smoke a particular brand."

"Because smokers tend to die earlier than nonsmokers," Sullum remarks crisply, "the costs of treating tobacco-related illness are balanced, and probably outweighed, by savings on Social Security, nursing home stays, and medical care in old age." Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian Reason magazine and himself a nonsmoker, is dead set against a federal ban on cigarettes and other tobacco products. He's also against their further regulation, not because he thinks smoking is a good idea, but because he thinks that, under the specious guise of science, a moral crusade of 19th century dimensions is operating on the eve of the 21st. He is particularly irritated by what he calls "the Public Health establishment," which, having vanquished most natural epidemics in our time, now treats smoking and other "addictive behaviors" as if they were communicable diseases.

"Behavior cannot be transmitted to other people against their will," Sullum observes. "People do not choose to be sick, but they do choose to engage in risky behavior. The choice implies that the behavior, unlike a viral or bacterial infection, has value. It also implies that attempts to control the behavior will be resisted," especially among the young. Elementary child psychology, not to mention your grandmother's home wisdom, will confirm that the fastest way to get a child to do something is to tell him not to do it. We're all being treated like children anyway, Sullum thinks, when the federal government redefines cigarettes as "nicotine delivery devices" and ignores the truth that every smoker knows -- that smoking is pleasurable, sensual and utilitarian, "relieving boredom," as Sullum says, "soothing distress, aiding concentration [and] warding off loneliness." In other words, smokers are not mere "addicts" in search of a fix, still less the helpless victims of the tobacco companies. Nobody smokes without some benefit to themselves.

Sullum is not a polemicist, and he is not encouraging anyone who reads his book to rush out for a pack of Camels. He wants Americans to make health decisions on their own and for themselves, and he wants an end to smoking hysteria, which, as he vividly demonstrates, has come and gone at different times in history without any lasting result. In the meantime, don't be fooled by the federal government's high moral tone in its fight against Big Tobacco: No government on earth is going to forgo nearly $20 billion a year in tax revenue, no matter who the villains are.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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