If There Isn’t Less Here, There’s Not More There
Hyperbole has its place, but one should be careful not to sound factual when trying to engage in hyperbole, because it can leave you making statements you don’t want to make.
If you say that X is just as bad as Z, then you are in essence saying that Z is no worse than X. This sounds relatively simple and straightforward, but people seem not to remember it.
I could use drunk driving as an example, or various legal terms, but since it relates to something else I am working on, I will focus on tobacco and smoking. It’s here I see this a lot.
Due to a recent study, a bunch of articles have come out pointing out the alleged dangers of “thirdhand smoke” which is the residue left over on clothes and surfaces due to smoking. Whether this actually represents a significant danger to health is still up for debate. We enter an entirely different ballpark with headlines like “Third-Hand Smoke Just as Deadly as First-Hand Smoke” or “Third-Hand Smoke Just as Lethal as First-Hand Smoke.”
Are we really prepared to say “Smoking is no more dangerous than contact with clothes with smoke residue”? Because if you’re not, saying “Third-hand smoke is just as deadly as first-hand smoke” is at best grossly misleading.
This was an issue when I was younger. The dangers of second-hand smoke were just coming out. It just didn’t seem to be enough to say “Second-hand smoke is dangerous” but it had to be a level of danger comparable to first-hand smoke, which it just isn’t. This was obvious to my fifth grade self. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. The difference between breathing something in directly compared to breathing something that is in a room? That’s just not comparable. And having been a smoker, and having lived with a smoker while not being one myself, I can tell you with absolute certainty that is true.
And the people making the claims know it. Nobody would ever tell someone “If your husband smokes, you might as well smoke to” which is the obvious implication of equivalent danger. Nor would anybody say “Hey, Father of Two, you might as well smoke inside because they’re getting poisoned anyway.”
About the closest the statement comes to being true is saying “If you’re a smoker, you’re still putting yourself at greater risk because you’re compounding first-hand and second-hand and third-hand smoke. And if you’re willing to argue that the actual act of smoking is only 1/3 of the danger, have at it. But nobody really believes that.
This sort of hyperbole matters a great deal. Yes, it can be useful when it comes to trying to pass smoking bans. The more dangerous second-hand smoke is presented as being, the more justified such rules are. But they also come at a cost, if you think to follow them to their logical conclusion. If third-hand smoke really is that dangerous, it’s a justification to revoke child custody. Because if a five year old living with a smoker is the equivalent of a five year old smoking, why not?One open debate is whether or not level of consumption matters. One would think that reduced consumption would be beneficial, but I’ve seen anti-smoking advocates say that it doesn’t. So if you smoke a half a pack, should you just go ahead and smoke two packs? If reduction doesn’t matter, then neither do increases. Are we prepared to state that? The science on this is actually mixed, insofar as it may not actually make a difference if you have been smoking a lot for long enough, but are we prepared to say to a smoker “If you can’t quit, don’t bother trying to reducing intake because it won’t help.”
Absolutism has served the anti-smoking movement well for the most part. The argument, over and over again that “There is no smoking that is okay” has had an effect. It also has the benefit of being true, insofar as you’re not saying “All smoking is equally dangerous” as the argument has sometimes turned on. Smoking lights is just as dangerous as smoking reds. Or it’s just as dangerous because you’ll smoke more of the lights. But smoking less isn’t actually any safer than smoking more. We’re just not prepared to say anything is less likely to kill you, even if we might say that something is more likely to kill you.
All of this turns to ecigarettes, which I will be posting about again next week. Suffice it to say, arguments are being made that vaping is “just as dangerous as smoking.” Unfortunately I think “zero social tolerance” has extended a bridge too far in this case, but a quick gut-check to anyone making that statement is “How would you respond to a tobacco company saying that as far as we know, smoking is no more hazardous to your health than vaping.”?