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Ivy League Prof: Public Health Officials Mislead People To Sway Habits

A Columbia University professor has published research this month which claims public smoking bans are not designed for public safety, but rather the laws aim to “denormalize” the habit among Americans in an apparent effort to reduce tobacco-related deaths.

But Ronald Bayer, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said public health officials should be honest with Americans about the regulations; instead of citing unfounded data regarding second-hand smoke and similar claims, just tell the truth – that they’re trying to save people from themselves, the scholar said.

With that, the professor – who teaches in New York, home of the infamous large soda ban – also defended the philosophy behind the so-called Nanny State, saying it protects people from “stupid” behavior.

“Public health officials don’t want to be tarred with the brush of the ‘nanny state’ (or) ‘Big Brother,’ ” Bayer told PBS in a recent interview. “I actually think these bans on parks and beaches represent, I think, a kind of paternalism, a kind of nanny state. The question is, is the nanny state so wrong? If we could eliminate 400,000 deaths a year over time because fewer and fewer people smoke, would that be so bad? And I think not. But I think public health officials are afraid to make the case that directly, so they get caught in making a case that, I think, is easily picked apart.”

In the interview, Bayer cited two big “Nanny State” movements: laws mandating motorcycle helmets and smoking in wide-open public places, such as parks and the beach.

“When we tried to impose motorcycle helmet laws in the United States, we made all kinds of arguments about how when a person gets into an accident, they really cost us all money because they have to go to emergency rooms and we have to pay for it,” he told PBS. “That’s not why we wanted motorcycle helmet laws. We wanted motorcycle helmet laws because we wanted to protect motorcyclists against their stupid behavior. We couldn’t say it, because that sounds like we’re finger wagging.”

As for public smoking bans, Bayer said his research found claims they protect public health are “weak.” But the bans have been successful at manipulating people’s actions by “denormalizing” cigarette smoking, the professor said.

“The general process of denormalizing smoking has an effect,” Bayer said. “It has an effect on quit rates and it has an effect on start rates. So that as part of a broader campaign to denormalize — to take something that was normal, social behavior, and to turn it into something a little weird, a little off — (it) does in fact have an impact, as do taxing tobacco products.”

It is estimated that more than 1,000 universities nationwide have banned smoking on college grounds, and some experts say they believe all campuses will be entirely smoke-free in the next 20 years.

Bayer told PBS that public health officials should just fess up about their hidden agenda.

“It is probably more effective to say the reason we’re banning smoking in parks and beaches is that we’re protecting you from sidestream smoke, or your kids from looking at something very bad for them or that we’re protecting wildlife,” he said. “… If people begin to feel that they’re being toyed with, that the evidence is not being presented in a straightforward way, it’s going to backfire. I think the evidence in the arguments made to implement these bans is absent, and in some of the cases, very weak. … In a crude way, honesty may be a more difficult policy, but I think it is in fact the best policy for public health.”

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.