Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't Ban Smoking in One's Own Home

Massachusetts politicians are considering making it illegal for people to smoke in their own home if it is public housing. My friend, Stephen Helfer, wrote this excellent letter to the Boston Globe, which was printed last week (without the references.)

To the Editor:

The Globe justifies prohibiting public housing residents from smoking in their apartments by implying that secondhand smoke can cause or aggravate asthma (“Boston should ban smoking in all public-housing units,” editorial, August 9). While secondhand smoke, like dust, pollen, or even exercise, can trigger an asthma attack, there is no evidence that tobacco smoke causes the illness.(1)

Between 1980 and 1996, in fact, although smoking and secondhand smoke exposure sharply declined in the United States, the prevalence of asthma increased 77 percent.(2) Specialists who had assumed there was a relationship between smoking and asthma were dumbfounded.(3) At present, according to the National Heart Blood and Lung Institute, the cause of asthma is unknown.(4)

Proponents of ever-more-restrictive health regulations ignore that people want and need to make their own personal decisions. Sir Michael Marmot, chair of the World Health Organization Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, has found that people with little control over their lives, suffer from ill health, as much or more, than as those who smoke or are obese.(5)

Denying public-housing residents the right to determine the smoking policy in their own homes deprives many of them the one area of their lives over which they have any control. It is not only, as the Globe concedes, intrusive, it is a danger to their health.


(1) National Heart Blood and Lung Institute, “What causes asthma symptoms to occur.”
(2) “Breathing Easier In Boston,” editorial, The Boston Globe, 10/16/06
(3) Ibid. Also see Ellen Ruppel Shell, “Does Civilization Cause Asthma,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2000, where Dr. Fernando Martinez of the University of Arizona is quoted: “...I assumed tobacco smoke and pollution were the problem.....But these factors turned out not to play a major role.”
(4) National Heart Blood and Lung Institute, “What causes asthma?”
(5) The following is condensed: “Smoking is an important cause of premature death. But it was not the main explanation of the social gradient.A combination of smoking, overweight, sedentary lifestyle, explained no more than about a quarter of the social gradient in mortality. So it wasn’t medical care and it was not primarily lifestyle.
“Unnatural Causes,” page 3, interview with Sir Michael Marmot, airing on PBS television.


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