“The health risks from Second Hand Smoke (“SHS”) exposure are now well documented and there is no risk-free level of exposure to SHS”


With this argument the debate about smoking risks moves beyond the smoker and on to the population in general. No longer is the smoker simply increasing their own risk but they are threatening all those around them.

Prior to the early 1970s smokers, only recently displaced as the majority of the UK or US adult population, were tolerated by non-smokers. The change came from the mid 1970s onwards, in part encouraged by the decision taken at the 1975 Third World Conference on Smoking and Health which called for “Programs aimed at creating a social environment in which smoking is unacceptable”. In the words of Sir George Godber: “We must foster an atmosphere where it is perceived that active smokers would injure those around them” (our emphasis added).

It certainly seems sensible to assume that non-smokers must be exposed to risk from being near smokers after all we are all aware of the smell. But as we have seen the risks faced by smokers themselves are easily overstated, and so even elevated risk is not the same as material, absolute risk.

The SCOTH report suggested a 24% increase in risk to non-smokers of lung cancer from exposure to SHS. This sounds material but, once again, the absolute risk of lung cancer in non-smokers is negligible and therefore a 24% increase will still render the absolute risk negligible. The suggestion was made that the risk was dose responsive, and therefore those with the greatest exposure over the longest time periods were the most in need of protection. From this comes the requirement to protect, for example, bar workers who worked in smoky venues hence the 2007 introduction of “smoke free workplace legislation” which brought an end to smoking in pubs and increased materially the rate of smoking on the streets.

There are many problems with the theory of SHS and the risk to non-smokers. The most obvious problem is that WHO’s own investigation of the risks showed no statistically significant increase in risk from either spousal smoking or smoking in the workplace, and a reduced risk for children. Those studies which purport to show an increased risk tend to be very small sample sizes where statistical significance is rather easier to achieve. But even with these studies, most fail the usually accepted norms of “increased risk”. There is, of course, the fact that we, and certainly our parents’ generation, would have grown up in a considerably smokier environment than we have done. The general health and well-being of the population had been improving long before the idea of restricting where people could smoke was introduced.

There is also the fact that smoking restrictions on “public places” are more usually restrictions in private places. Public houses are not “public places”, they are private enterprises. No-one is forced to enter any particular pub or restaurant, while the claim made that there would be no impact (and that indeed there would be a benefit) to the hospitality trade from the introduction of restrictions on smokers has been demonstrated to be palpably false.

Again the point is that the claim made against tobacco is not borne out by the evidence. In the end the introduction of restrictions on smoking in public places was not about “health” it was simply the “next logical step” which opponents of tobacco wished to pursue.