Info Bank
Passive smoking

The idea that tobacco smoke, heavily diluted in the atmosphere, can kill or seriously harm large numbers of non-smokers is so implausible that the anti-smoking lobby has gone to exceptional lengths to foster a fear of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), also known as secondhand smoke (SHS) or “passive smoking”.

While it is perfectly legitimate for people to express a dislike of the smell of tobacco smoke or say it causes them some discomfort, the distortion of scientific, statistical, methodological, and research procedure to provide a medical justification for banning smoking in public places is not acceptable, least of all as a pretext for removing the rights of ten million British adults.

Are non-smokers at risk from ETS?
Regardless of what you may have heard, the scientific establishment has found it impossible to reach agreement on the issue. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on 23 February 2001, Professor Sir Richard Doll, the first scientist to publish research that suggested a correlation between lung cancer and primary smoking, commented: “The effects of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn’t worry me.” Professor Doll’s comments surprised some people, but not those who have analysed the arguments about ETS in detail.

World Health Organisation
In March 1998 the World Health Organisation was forced to admit that the results of a seven-year study (the largest of its kind) into the link between passive smoking and lung cancer were not “statistically significant”. This is because the risk of a non-smoker getting lung cancer had been estimated at 0.01%. According to WHO, non-smokers are subjecting themselves to an increased risk of 16-17% if they consistently breathe other people’s tobacco smoke. This may sound alarming, but an increase of 16-17% on 0.01 is so small that, in most people’s eyes, it is no risk at all.

Greater London Assembly report
In April 2002, following an exhaustive six-month investigation during which written and oral evidence was supplied by organisations including ASH, Cancer Research UK and Forest, the Greater London Assembly Investigative Committee on Smoking in Public Places declined to recommend ANY further restrictions on smoking in public places, stating very clearly that it is not easy to prove a link between passive smoking and lung cancer. As joint author of the report, Angie Bray put on record her opposition to a total ban on smoking in public places in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (5 July 2003). According to Bray: “The assembly spent six months investigating whether a smoking ban should be imposed in public places in London. After taking evidence from all sides, including health experts, it was decided that the evidence gathered did not justify a total smoking ban.”

Enstrom/Kabat study
In May 2003, the British Medical Journal published a study that seriously questioned the impact of environmental tobacco smoke on health. According to the study, the link between environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed. The analysis, by James Enstrom of the University of California, Los Angeles and Geoffrey Kabat of New Rochelle, New York, involved 118,094 California adults enrolled in the American Cancer Society cancer prevention study in 1959, who were followed until 1998. The authors found that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, as estimated by smoking in spouses, was not significantly associated with death from coronary heart disease or lung cancer at any time or at any level of exposure. These findings, say the authors, suggest that environmental tobacco smoke could not plausibly cause a 30% increased risk of coronary heart disease, as is generally believed, although a small effect cannot be ruled out.

House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report
In July 2006 the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee published a report on the management of risk. One of the subjects they looked at was passive smoking. The committee, whose members included former Chancellor Lord Lawson, concluded that, “Passive smoking is an example in which [government] policy demonstrates a disproportionate response to a relatively minor health problem, with insufficient regard to statistical evidence.”

No clear connection
The simple fact is that in terms of establishing a clear causal connection between exposure to ETS and illness in non-smokers, the anti-smoking industry has continually failed to prove its case.

One of the few scientists who managed to publicise attempts to measure significant exposure to environmental tobacco smoke – in Swedish homes – was a toxicologist, Professor Robert Nilsson. Nilsson quoted findings that showed that non-smokers who consistently breathe other people’s tobacco smoke are smoking the equivalent of one cigarette a week to two cigarettes a year.

Yet only the most diligent or scrupulous students will have heard of such findings because, as Professor Nilsson explained, studies that produce the “wrong” results (that is, unwelcome to the extensive anti-smoking network) do not get published. So the campaign of intimidation and suppression goes unchallenged.

So why are we told that “passive smoking kills”?
Anti-smoking campaigners are determined to stop people smoking. The suggestion that smokers are harming non-smokers is a carefully orchestrated means to an end. The argument that an adult has the right to choose whether or not to indulge in a legal activity can be undermined if it is established that they are harming others. ETS is a very effective weapon with which to demonise smokers and justify their calls for a blanket ban on public smoking. But as they have been unable to prove that “passive smoking kills”, the anti-smoking lobby propagate a falsehood hoping that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth”.

Why do doctors and health authorities support the claim?
There is a “party line” on passive smoking and dissent is neither encouraged nor welcome. Some understand that the claims are not sound but they conclude that obscuring the truth about passive smoking is acceptable if it helps people to quit smoking. Others fail to speak out for fear of professional retaliation.

If the science on ETS is so flawed, why don’t doctors and scientists speak out?
Some doctors and scientists have spoken out but they are shouted down by an antismoking movement which is well-organised, well-funded, and on a roll. Those who have dared stick their heads above the parapet include the late Dr Ken Denson of the Thame Thrombosis and Haemostasis Research Foundation who wrote, “The ill effects of passive smoking are still intuition rather than scientific fact, and billions have been spent by the medical institutions in pursuing this illusory myth” (British Medical Journal, 1 August 2004).

Dr Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, famously commented, “We must be interested in whether passive smoking kills, and the question has not been definitively answered” (British Medial Journal, 30 August 2003).

Simon Clark

Mission & Vision



Forest’s mission is to protect the interests of adults who choose to smoke or consume tobacco.


Our key aims and objectives are to:

  • counteract the “denormalisation” of smoking, and smokers
  • prevent further restrictions on the purchase and consumption of tobacco
  • establish closer links with other tobacco-friendly groups at home and abroad
  • build support among consumers of tobacco and other similarly threatened groups
  • highlight the increasingly intrusive nature of Big Government in the lives of private individuals