If you hang around discussions about vaccines, you will see the oft-repeated claim that doctors once claimed that “smoking is safe.” The anti-vaccine religion (or terrorists) use this trope as a strawman argument in an attempt to discredit physicians, scientists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who claim that vaccines are safe and effective.
Anti-vaxxers really lack much evidence to support their science-denying arguments against the settled science regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Thus, they have to rely upon misinformation, tropes, and lies to make arguments that vaccines are something.
I would laugh at this “smoking is safe” claim, except it’s used to dissuade parents from trusting wonderful organizations like the CDC, which only has one goal, to protect lives from diseases. So, let’s debunk this anti-vaccine myth because that’s what we do around here.
Science said smoking is safe!
As with many other myths about science, like the Piltdown Man scam discredits the fact of evolution, or that scientists once believed the earth was flat, it is used to discredit science and scientists. If these scientists once thought that smoking is safe, how can we ever trust scientists about vaccines or anything else?
To be fair, this strawman argument isn’t just used by the anti-vaxxers – climate change deniers, creationists, cancer charlatans, and many others utilize this “smoking is safe” myth to tarnish real science, so that their particular brand of pseudoscience looks like it could be true. Yes, I believe these myths are shared at a meeting of pseudoscience supporters in Sedona, Arizona every year.
But really, did any actual scientist or science-based physician ever claim that smoking is safe? OK, it’s hard to “prove a negative,” but let’s give it a good effort.
Smoking tobacco was prevalent in the native American tribes well before the advent of modern science. There was no Native American CDC, FDA or Board of Physicians to approve the use of tobacco as “safe and effective.” It was a natural thing to do back then, another reason why the appeal to nature logical fallacy is, in fact, a fallacy.
Those Native Americans and Europeans who picked up the habit believed in all kinds of nonsense about tobacco, including that it cured cancer. This belief was not based on any “science” – it was the traditions of the world at the time that put inordinate faith in various herbs and how they could cure various maladies (see Note 1). In fact, thinking smoking or tobacco was healthy was advertised by the woo-pushers of the time, who are barely different than the woo-pushers of the modern world, like our favorite anti-vaxxers.
By the late 1800’s, when real evidence-based medicine was in its infancy, many British journals were publishing articles warning about some of the negative health effects of smoking. An article in The Lancet in 1913 warned – “that tobacco smoking can give rise to constitutional effects which diminish the resisting power of the body to disease” (see citation below since this 1913 article lacks an inline citation).
By the 1930s, real science observed the increase in lung cancer from smoking. The Nazis banned cigarette smoking in the 1930s because of the known health effects (and that will be the last time I will mention Nazis in any positive sense in anything I ever write again).
Of course, observing an increase in lung cancer from cigarettes does not establish causality. But that was going to change.
In 1950, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Martin Levin that established a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. By the mid-1950s, numerous epidemiological studies showed a profound increase in lung cancer risk for smokers. The Royal College of Physicians (UK) warned against smoking in 1962. The Surgeon General of the USA warned against smoking in 1964. The CDC has warned against smoking for over 50 years.
Once there was an established link shown between smoking and cancer during the 1950s, the CDC and most public health authorities across the world opposed smoking, despite the strong pushback from Big Tobacco, whose ethics are only matched by the anti-vaxxers.
Yes, tobacco advertisers used to make ads that showed doctors smoking, or worse, endorsing cigarettes. But that wasn’t the “science” of the time. Big Tobacco (a truly evil lot of characters) said just about anything to get people to smoke, whether it was showing doctors smoking or that smoking made you sexy.
But they weren’t using peer-reviewed science, these ads were worse than anecdotes because they were outright lies and mischaracterizations. Science had already concluded that cigarettes were unhealthy a half century before those ads. And don’t forget that most of those “doctors” endorsing cigarettes were, in fact, actors.
Once real epidemiological studies were published in peer-reviewed journals, the attitude about smoking changed almost immediately in the medical and general scientific community. If there ever was a scientific consensus that smoking was safe (and I can’t find real evidence of that ever happening), it eventually self-corrected over a short period of years.
So if you think that “scientists pushed tobacco,” nothing could be further from the truth, unless you want to accept the advertising from Big Tobacco as some sort of truth. And it was real science that found the link (when modern epidemiology really developed as a discipline), and it was real science that became the basis of the worldwide effort against smoking.
Once the evidence about the dangers of smoking was published, there was a sea change in how healthcare treated smoking. To say otherwise is a ridiculous lie pushed by those with an agenda about vaccines.
Even if some physicians 75 years ago thought that “smoking is safe,” that attitude changed as the science brought us more evidence. It’s the same with vaccines – we have powerful, robust, and repeated evidence that they are all very safe and very effective. If a similar level of powerful, robust, and repeated evidence is developed that show us we were wrong, then the narrative will change.
Anti-vaxxers who use this trope just shows that they have nothing to support their beliefs about vaccines – they need their cherished myths and tropes.
- The modern belief that cannabis can “cure” cancer is based on a similar logical fallacy filled pseudoscience. Remember, cancer is not one disease, it is hundreds of diseases all unrelated. And cannabis has never been shown to have any clinical effect on those hundreds of different cancers, based on powerful robust clinical trials.
- Anonymous. The germicidal properties of tobacco smoke. Lancet 1913;i: 406.
- Charlton A. Medicinal uses of tobacco in history. J R Soc Med. 2004 Jun;97(6):292-6. PubMed PMID: 15173337; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1079499.
- LEVIN ML, GOLDSTEIN H, GERHARDT PR. Cancer and tobacco smoking; a preliminary report. J Am Med Assoc. 1950 May 27;143(4):336-8. PubMed PMID: 15415261.
- White C. Research on smoking and lung cancer: a landmark in the history of chronic disease epidemiology. Yale J Biol Med. 1990 Jan-Feb;63(1):29-46. PubMed PMID: 2192501; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2589239.