About Chris Snowdon
Christopher Snowdon is the author of the extremely well-reviewed Velvet Glove Iron Fist: A History of the Anti-Smoking Movement.
Chris generously agreed to be interviewed by us in what turned out to be a very wide-ranging interview covering his book, the Nazi anti-smoking movement, the electronic cigarette and much more.
How the Velvet Glove, Iron Fist book began
What prompted you to write the book?
Well, you know it was so long ago now I can hardly remember (laughs). It's a number of things.
It's really a book I wanted to read and I was quite surprised that there wasn't something like this already on the shelves. It's something I think is quite an important topic and there wasn't really a history of the whole subject which had been written.
I started reading more about it and realised that there was definitely a good book in it. So that's the main reason, I am also interested in issues of how people get things done through campaigns with activism, I am interested in issues of personal liberty, interested in popular science and how people come to believe certain things so it had a bit of everything for me.
Has there been a lot of interest in the book?
It's going pretty well, yes. I get a lot of emails from people, sales have been doing okay, so yeah there are people interested in the topic for sure.
One of the things I am interested in is that the anti-smoking lobby seem to be a lot more effective at getting their voice across than people like Forces.
Well there's not really any contest in terms of resources and access to the media and so on. The anti-smoking movement isn't a voluntary group of people, you know, with placards. It hasn't been for decades. It's an international multi-billion pound operation. So inevitably that side of the argument is going to come through far more powerfully than anybody else.
" The anti-smoking movement isn't a voluntary group of people... It’s an international multi-billion pound operation. "
So who do you see the funding as coming from?
Oh, it comes primarily from government. Also some money from the pharmaceutical industry. The exact amount of money we are talking about is hard to quantify. I've heard figures around the 800 million dollar a year mark but it could well be more than that, in fact it would be more than that. You've got to factor in the World Health Organisation, the UN, and all the individual national governments. Most of them have part of their health spending dedicated towards tobacco programmes, so there's a lot of people involved in this.
So basically it is our money funding it, as taxpayers.
Yeah, yeah primarily. There's very little in the way of voluntary donations. I mean it's negligible.
Is this genuinely prompted by health concerns?
I think so. I think in terms of what the politicians think they are paying for, it's primarily about health. The money started coming in - it trickled in in the 60's and 70's and became a river in the 80's and 90's.
And there's more and more of it around because basically what you have is the idea of less people smoking, which in politics is almost universally seen as a good thing, for obvious reasons.
" The politicians rely on the people... many of whom were initially just activists and in some cases fanatics back in the 70’s... they are the ones coming up with the policies. "
The problem is, it's very easy to set these targets saying you want to have 20%, 15%, 10% of the population smoking, much easier to say that than it is to actually get it done. So the politicians make these promises, they have these kind of Utopian ideas, they have these targets in mind and then it is a question of what do you do about it.
Well, the people who are coming up with the solutions is the international tobacco control lobby, I mean these people have conferences all over the world, they're all pretty much singing from the same hymn sheet, they've all got the same policies in mind, and one country will try them out first and then you'll see them gradually go round all the rest of the countries.
But the politicians rely on the people, professionally involved in tobacco control, many of whom were initially just activists and in some cases fanatics back in the 70's and are now working full time in tobacco control, they are the ones coming up with the policies, the politicians don't really understand what needs to be done or the way things work, they will just give them pretty much free reign and blank cheque and say go on, do what you think is best.
Scientists and the anti-smoking groups
A lot of the scientists we've spoken to in tobacco control are now going against these public health organisations, at least over the electronic cigarette they are disagreeing with them. I mean, Siegel, for quite a while he's been against them but there have been others as well.
There have been others, but I mean someone like Mike Siegel is a bit of a fish out of water himself as I think he would be the first to admit. It takes a lot of courage to break ranks and you risk professional vilification, you risk having your funding cut, so it is still a minority of scientists, even on an issue like e-cigarettes. It's fairly straight forward but it is still not the thing to speak out and rock the boat.
" It takes a lot of courage to break ranks and you risk professional vilification, you risk having your funding cut. "
Another person I was thinking of was Joel Nitzkin as well, among others (also see David Sweanor, former advisor to the WHO on the subject of tobacco control).
One of the greatest anti-smokers identified in your book was the German Nazi party and Hitler, who called smoking the enemy of world peace. It was also one of the chapters I enjoyed most, actually. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well, everybody likes to read about the Nazis, don't they? Well, the thing with the Nazis on smoking was that it was primarily a bee in Hitler's bonnet really, it wasn't something that was particularly an issue for the German people prior to 1933, it wasn't even a big issue with the rank and file of the German Nazi party.
It was one of these passions that Hitler had, something that he felt very strongly about from the moment he himself gave up smoking. And it became quite an important part of the Nazi approach to health, a whole clean living campaign which was very prevalent under the Nazis, involving organic food, vegetarianism, naturism all this kind of stuff... and Hitler poured a lot of money, for the time a huge amount of money, into smoking research, into anti-smoking advertising and he began to bring in various laws, many of which would be very familiar to anyone who has seen the laws which have come in the last 20 or 30 years.
" Hitler poured a lot of money... into smoking research, into anti-smoking advertising and he began to bring in various laws. "
Advertising restrictions, smoking bans, increasing the tax of cigarettes to deter purchase - all of these policies were originally tied in Germany in the thirties and forties.
Comparison with the current day anti-smoking campaign: A duty to be healthy
I find it fascinating comparing it [The Nazi Campaign against smoking] to what's going on nowadays - I mean, the Nazi regime was of the opinion that people didn't have the right to do as they wished with their bodies, they had a duty to be fit and strong and healthy. So do you see any similarities with attitudes today, even if it is for different reasons?
Well it is for different reasons, I mean the Nazi idea was a fundamentally anti-individualist doctrine, obviously, and it did value the whole of society above the individual. You know the reason for that, the reason they wanted to keep everybody fit and healthy was largely so they could fight in wars and in the case of women it was so that they could be good mothers to the Aryan race. And the Nazis explicitly, if incorrectly, viewed tobacco as a genetic poison. So that was their thinking on it. Because, of course they didn't value the autonomy of the individual, they didn't think twice about bringing in these restrictions on people smoking.
" The current situation is different... but there is still a duty to be healthy... particularly in countries where you have socialised health care. "
The current situation is different in some profound ways. But there is still a duty to be healthy, as it were, particularly in countries where you have socialised health care. In Britain it is the NHS, it is the idea that people are becoming a drain on the NHS, that smoking diseases have to be paid for by everybody and therefore everybody has a stake in stopping people smoking.
Which is ridiculous, because smokers pay a fortune, a lot more than the NHS cost.
Well exactly, it's amazing how long that myth of smokers being a drain on society has lasted, particularly in places like Britain where cigarette taxes bring in so much more money than the cost of treating these smoking diseases... and all these calculations always ignore the fundamental fact that if people aren't dying of a smoking related disease they just die of another disease which will probably cost as least as much to pay for anyway. But it's a powerful message because it gives people a reason to get involved in other people’s lives.
" Cigarette taxes bring in so much more money than the cost of treating these smoking diseases "
We have this obsession with being healthy and not dying. We [ECD] are of the opinion that it should be people's choice. Of course, this is also the reason why there has been such a strong emphasis on passive smoking...
Of course, this is exactly the same thing.
You have been critical of the anti-smoking movement and you have found some pretty extreme examples of lies and hypocrisy, some of which you have posted on your website. What would you say is the worst example you have found?
Perhaps we are experiencing it just right now.
As we speak the third hand smoke issue is going around the globe and that is about as bad as anything I have seen, because it is such a crazy idea, it's got so little evidence behind it and it makes you wonder. I have just been going around blogs and websites today reading people's views on it and quite a number of them are seriously scared, are seriously worried about going to a house that has been smoked in before, or of being near a smoker because he might have thirdhand smoke in his hair or his clothes.
It's terrifying really when you think you live in an age of science and reason...
Well, until we know better we tend to accept what we are told.
Tend to accept what we are told, but in this instance people are being grievously mislead. But deliberately as well. With the third hand smoke thing, for example, the study that has just come out, when they mixed nitrous acid with absorbed nicotine, the chemistry itself is okay but it’s meaningless.
What's being done with that experiment which in itself is almost completely pointless, has no practical application, it's been seized on and now we see what happens, it goes around the world, and you tend to say your babies and your children are at risk from, you know, sitting on carpet in a house which used to belong to a smoker and people believe it.
One example was smokers - not people smoking, smokers - being banned from a hospital waiting room.
Yeah, sure, yeah. I mean anything like that. I mean that's the point, isn't it? The idea of the study is to make people worried about that, and to make employers turn smokers away for a job even if they are not smoking at work and to really stigmatise smokers. It's deliberate hate mongering and it is a real concern that they are doing this and doing it so fraudulently.
We actually got three scientists to look at those claims and not one of them would accept it.
No, it's ludicrous. And from your point of view, with the e-cigarettes, I don't think it is a coincidence that it's come out at this time and that they specifically looked at nicotine. Because this is probably the only way they can have any kind of scientific way to attack the e-cigarette so I think it's primarily aimed at e-cigarettes, really.
" It's deliberate hate mongering and it is a real concern that they are doing this and doing it so fraudulently. "
Nicotine and electronic cigarettes
Well, have you seen the latest study [on e-cigarettes]? The latest study is saying we shouldn't change to e-cigarettes because we don't get any nicotine out of them, and therefore we won't be able to stop using real cigarettes. So, it seems to go from one extreme to the other.
Nicotine is dangerous so don't use electronic cigarettes, and now you don't get nicotine from them so don't use electronic cigarettes because you won't quit.
They can't make up their minds up what they are saying. They can't even be consistent on whether nicotine is a good or a bad thing.
The UK department of health has just released a report which says they are going to put pharmaceutical nicotine products centre stage in their approach, trying to halve the number of smokers in the next ten years, and they say it is a perfectly safe drug, and they say they are going to work with the pharmaceutical industry to dispel some of the myths about nicotine.
" It depends where you buy your nicotine on whether it is a killer or not! "
But at the same time the environmental protection agency in America has said it's a class A carcinogen, acutely toxic, and ASH [US] one minute will say that it is a horrendous poison and carcinogen, and the next minute if they are talking about patches or say that is medicinal pure nicotine and it's very smoothing and all the rest of it. It depends where you buy your nicotine on whether it is a killer or not!
Well according to the TobaccoHarmReduction.org project it is the combustion that is the problem not the ingredients. They say it doesn't matter what you smoke, it'll be bad for you if you are burning it and inhaling it.
Well, there's a lot of truth in that. There's nothing particularly amazing or magical about cigarettes that differentiates it from smoke from a barbecue or from a bonfire or even from a candle. Anything combusted will have various potential carcinogens in it. Smoking, active smoking, is a harmful activity because you are filling up your lungs for decades with smoke.
Anti-smoking groups and their views on e-cigarettes
We find it really strange that these groups have been campaigning for years and years against cigarettes on health grounds, and you finally get something that comes on which is basically some nicotine, which everything we have read has said is not that bad for you, in water vapour, and which experts have told us is about as bad as a cup of coffee. And then we get all these anti-smoking organisations, except for ASH in the UK, trying to have it banned. What's going on?
Well, I think there are three factors at work here. And it applies not just to e-cigarettes but to any safer tobacco device, or nicotine device except for pharmaceutical products.
Firstly, when you have got reforming groups, when you have got activist groups who are trying to change the world they tend to be idealists, even people who start out as pragmatists will become more extreme when they are immersed in a cause for years.
The second thing is that it as much a moral crusade as it is a health crusade. It's a mistake to look at the war on smoking as purely being about health.
" ...to accept any kind of tobacco harm reduction is in their eyes accepting a short measure. "
There has always been a moral element to the anti-smoking crusade for centuries, there has always been people who instinctively object to any addictive pleasure or any addictive device. And that applies just as much to the e-cigarette or to chewing tobacco or to snus as it does to cigars or cigarettes. So, from a moral perspective anything involving the drug, nicotine, is objectionable and intolerable. So, you've got those two things there, you've got the extremism which always comes with reform movements and you've got this moral side too and you combine those two and you have a movement which doesn't see things in shades of grey. That believes that not just a smoke-free world, maybe not even a tobacco free world but actually a nicotine free world is within reach, within a generation. So to accept any kind of tobacco harm reduction is in their eyes accepting a short measure, is not going far enough and they are just going to go for their utopia, which is nobody having anything to do with tobacco at all.
The third explanation you've got is the funding from the pharmaceutical industry, and that is bound to make a difference when you have got anti-smoking groups like ASH who are financed by pharmaceutical companies when you've got prominent activists being financially rewarded, directly or indirectly from the pharmaceutical lobby they are not going to speak out against nicotine inhalers in the same way in which they do against the e-cigarette even though the two products are virtually the same.
So it's a perfect storm against the e-cigarettes but also against any kind of reduced harm products.
Pharmaceutical companies vs. E-cigarettes
It's very interesting that the MHRA in the UK is also funded to a large extent by pharmaceutical companies and they have been attacked for that. And also we found that recently on this committee that is looking at the electronic cigarette that there's actually a representative from one of the pharmaceutical companies. That's what we've been told, I think yesterday, by one of the other electronic cigarette companies.
It's difficult to know how much influence the pharmaceutical industry have, I mean obviously all the money they are giving them, giving the anti-smoking movement, is very useful it pays for a lot of research, pays for conferences, I mean they sponsor conferences all over the place so it clearly helps them.
" ...these people, like I say they are extremists, they are idealists. "
I don't know if the anti-smoking movement has become more hard line as a result of the pharmaceutical money. I mean, these people, like I say they are extremists, they are idealists, in the first place.
If you didn't have pharmaceutical lobby paying the anti-smokers anything at all I think they probably still would be against the e-cigarettes. They might even also be against Nicorette and Chantix and the rest of it. These people, they generally don't need paying to become extremists in the first place.
They don't seem to have a problem though with Chantix and Champix. There's been deaths attributed to them, there haven't been any attributed to electronic cigarettes.
The UK Government and e-cigarette regulation
In the UK now the government is talking about regulating electronic cigarettes, they have admitted it can save lives, I think in their consultation document they estimated several hundred, but they want to call it a medicine. Now, do you think this is good news or bad news?
I don't see why it needs to be called a medicine. I don't see why it can't just be regarded as a tobacco product I guess. The tobacco products aren't really regulated. I think it does need to be regulated properly, to be honest, because people have to know what they are getting, there has to be some sort of standard. It's a new product, there are all kinds of different ones coming out from China, and people don't know what they are getting. I am concerned that because it delivers nicotine at some point a child might pick up one of the capsules and bite into it and, I don't know, get a deadly dose. I don't know how the chemistry works with it if that's possible or not, but there needs to be some kind of regulation with any products like that, really, cigarettes are a bit of a different case.
My concern is that I think at the moment they just want to get them off the market, and once they are off the market you might find it very difficult to get them back on there because there is going to be a lot of lobbying against them. I don't know they will necessarily look at good science when regulating them I think they will go along with the kind of precautionary principle which is what Finland have said they are going to do, I mean Finland has just announced that if any safe or safer tobacco product came on the market in the future they would not allow it, they would just let people keep smoking cigarettes.
" ...I think they'd be crazy to ban them [e-cigarettes] but I think there is at least a 50:50 chance of that happening. "
The whole movement is very much opposed to tobacco harm reduction, has been for thirty years. So, I think they'd be crazy to ban them but I think there is at least a 50:50 chance of that happening. So in answer to your question, I don't know, I guess it does need to be regulated, it needs to have some kind of kite mark for safety or whatever. I don't know what the process of regulation involves, if it necessarily has to be taken off the market. If it has to be called a medicine - I don't know about that.
The anti-smoking movement without smoking
So imagine the anti-smoking movement succeeded in in achieving their aim. It would never happen, would it, I don't think either of us think that, if they made it illegal people would do it illegally, but imagine if it happened, just hypothetically, what would happen next? Would these people stop activating or would they have a new target?
Well, Julia Caroll, who used to be very high up in American's for Non-Smoker's rights, she was once asked that question, what would happen if tobacco miraculously disappeared, and she just said we'll move on to other causes. And undoubtedly there would be. There's been some migration already.
John Banzhaf of Action Smoking and Health, he's now a prominent campaigner in the so-called obesity wars, he's suing Mc Donalds all over the place. You've got the whole food issue, you've got the whole alcohol issue, and all these people in the anti-smoking movement have got exactly the right transferable skills to move over into these areas.
" ...they can conjure up all sorts of research, they are very good at PR and they are very good at lobbying. "
By transferable skills I mean they can conjure up all sorts of research, they are very good at PR and they are very good at lobbying. So some of them are starting to move over there between sectors already. A lot of these people know each other anyway, they go to very similar conferences and talk about the same kind of thing. It's all part of the bigger picture which is the public health movement, which has grown and grown since the mid 70's.
So, without a doubt they would go on to campaign against something else. I mean, what else are they going to do? A lot of them probably get a kick out of bossing people around.
John Banzhaf and Ash International
Well, John Banzhaf is a bully, there is no doubt about that. He's always threatening people with lawsuits. Although in many ways he is a great enemy to have, he's so extreme and his claims are so ridiculous...
He's a comic book figure, really. When I think of Banzhaf I think of some kid in a schoolyard by himself, with no friends, who's just sort of planning when he grows up he's going to take his revenge in the world.
I really think that some of the other organisations must be embarrassed about him.
He's getting less and less publicity. I've gone on to his website to look at his crazy rantings and his press releases and things and he doesn't seem to get in the news much anymore. But what he is saying is just bonkers, I mean, take this third-hand smoking again.
He said the risk from third hand smoking is comparable with smoking. The guy's a lawyer, so I guess that's legalese, you can technically say it is comparable with smoking because it is nothing like smoking - that's the comparison!
" He's [John Banzhaf] a scaremonger and he's an attention seeker. "
So he comes up with this stuff, he's said a lot about e-cigarettes and how nicotine is a poison and people are pumping it into the air and do you want to be sat next to someone huffing away on one of these e-cigarettes.
He's a scaremonger and he's an attention seeker.
I mean he's not the only one, I mean the one that always come to my mind is the person who said that giving a smoker an electronic cigarette is like giving a rubber knife to a murderer, and (laughs) I actually think that would be quite a good idea, at least better than giving him a real one, surely!
Exactly, that would be harm reduction, wouldn't it, if you give these people rubber knives, I suppose. It's the kind of thing they like to say. Stanton Glantz got his knickers in a twist about one of the characters smoking in avatar. He said it was like putting plutonium into the water supply. They have no sense of perspective at all.
The anti-smoking lobby & the erosion of public trust
The [anti-smoking] story, I think, is not over by a long stretch, and recent developments with the electronic cigarettes are fascinating. Do you think there will be follow up book?
At some point it is quite possible, it won't be for a year or two, I shouldn't think, I need to let things happen but things are moving on so quickly.
I'm blogging, and initially I thought if I start blogging am I going to have enough things to write about but here's stuff coming out every single day, interesting stuff - or to me it is anyway. Things are moving on very quickly, things I think are coming to a bit of a head. They are testing the public's credibility with a lot of this stuff.
Like you said before people are very inclined to the appeal for authority, to respecting what they read, both from journalists and from what scientists are reported to say, and that is starting, I think, to break down judging by a lot of the comments I've been reading all over the place recently about the heart attack miracles, about the third hand smoke issues, even about the e-cigarette. And users of e-cigarettes, even if they didn't see it before, they are starting to see how these people operate now and realise they are coming under threat.
I think it is fascinating, these lies, when you realise you have been lied to once it leads to a general breakdown of trust. I've become a global warming sceptic now because I just think ‘how can I believe anything I'm told?’
Exactly, it is very damaging potentially to science. It's not like it is going to bring down science overnight but it damages the credibility of the vast majority of serious scientists who are doing real work and creating good drugs and so on, because it just leads to this gradual erosion.
Scientists are among the most respected people in the world, they are on the opposite side of journalists and politicians, who are the least respected, which is why politicians and to a less extent journalists need to keep citing scientists all the time to bolster what they are saying.
It's a problem and it's a shame that there are not more people like Michael Siegel speaking out even on these quite simple issues where people are clearly just not telling us the truth. And eventually the conventional wisdom might turn around, you know.
At the moment the conventional wisdom is that everybody knows that second hand smoke kills, well that can just change, if you push people's credibility so far eventually the conventional wisdom just becomes these anti-smoking people just exaggerate and make things up. And once that happens you have a sea change in public opinion.
Before these people came out so strongly against electronic cigarettes we were asking them to get involved, to take part in surveys, talk about things, do some interviews and we had no reaction at all [see A Reply to Ash's Call for Greater Regulation]. They are happy to shout out about the electronic cigarette but no-one was interested in doing any actual testing, or following people who were taking up the electronic cigarette and seeing how their health changed or anything.
The fact of the matter is still that the vast majority of people haven't heard of e-cigarettes, let alone seen them. There is no way of really knowing what public opinion will be. And you haven't really had much in the news of them.
But it should be obvious from the incredibly credulous response that has greeted the third hand smoke study that people will believe nearly anything and it wouldn't take much more than a press release from one of these groups to say that nicotine is a poison, e-cigarettes contain nicotine, it goes into the atmosphere, it goes into your environment, it should be banned.
" ...people will believe nearly anything and it wouldn’t take much more than a press release from one of these groups to say... it should be banned. "
And you can say these things without lying, that's the thing. It's quite easy not to tell the truth without actually lying. So you can say nicotine is toxic, because everything is toxic at some dose. You can say it is linked to blood vessels constricting because it is - at a certain level. What they always ignore is the dose and real life circumstances and the real life conditions and the fact that these things are to all extents and purposes completely harmless.
Yes, everyone we have spoken to has said the same thing. If you say, is it dangerous, it is the wrong question? You have to say: How dangerous is it? To which they say it is about one percent the risk of smoking.
Finally, if anyone wants to buy your book, where is the best place to get it?
For most people in most countries Amazon has it, or you can get it on my website www.velvetgloveironfist.com, and on that website there is my blog, which I keep updated most days, if you want to get in touch or just read what's going on.
Thank you very much Chris.
It's my pleasure.
Please note that comments of the interviewee do not necessarily represent the views of E-Cigarette Direct.
Using this Interview - Anyone can use this interview: all we require is acknowledgement of this source and a link back to this site.