Tuesday 10 November 2009

John Banzhaf's slippery slope

Further to yesterday's post on John Banzhaf, here's an article I wrote about the man earlier this year...

But he seemed so reasonable!

For many years the anti-smoking movement has been accused of creating a 'slippery slope' that will lead to a puritanical crusade against any product deemed to be unhealthy. The anti-smoking movement has always denied this. As Stanton Glantz (founder of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights) said in 2006:

"The whole slippery slope argument is fallacious. It says that intelligent people aren't capable of making decisions."

In actual fact, Stanton Glantz is quite right in what he says. It is a logical fallacy to claim that just because A leads to B, that B will inevitably lead to C, and that C will lead to Z. Lawmakers can draw the line at any time. Circumstances can change. What is deemed appropriate remedial action in one case might be deemed inappropriate in another case.

And yet, history shows that the slippery slope is no myth. Those who warn that prohibitions in one area will lead to prohibitions in other areas are portrayed as fear-mongerers in their own time but, with hindsight, have often been shown to be right. The slippery slope may be a logical fallacy but it is also a political reality. Politics is not always logical.

The career of John Banzhaf III provides a classic illustration of the slippery slope in action. Banzhaf founded Action on Smoking and Health in 1968 as - to quote Richard Kluger - "an extension of a not inconsiderable ego" (Ashes to Ashes, p. 506) and has appeared on television and radio enough times in the last 40 years for us to see how he has slowly taken off the velvet glove to reveal the iron fist.

Back in 1968, ASH ostensibly existed as a pressure group to resist cigarette advertising on television to protect children. When the Los Angeles Times interviewed him in that year, he was insistent that he was anti-smoking, not anti-smoker, as their reporter explained:

"Banzhaf doesn't smoke but he denies his crusade is based on an antipathy for smokers and smoking. "You can smoke," he said. "That's all right. I just don't want children brainwashed into it."

Fast forward to 2009 and Banzhaf has a very different attitude. He now describes ASH as "a national organization leading the fight to protect nonsmokers from thirdhand smoke." ('Thirdhand smoke' being an ill-defined chimera based on a telephone survey which has no credibilty amongst serious scientists). For several years, he has been a leading voice in the campaign for smokers to be discriminated against in custody battles. Not only has he called for the children of divorced couples to be given to the nonsmoking parent, but he now believes that the smoking parent should be compelled by law to "change clothing and use a mouthwash before the child visits." Last year, he appeared on television to explain why it was "legal and profitable" for companies to "fire smokers and employ only nonsmokers."

It is safe to say that Banzhaf would have never been taken seriously had he proposed even one of these policies in the 1970s. Instead he has taken baby steps to win a long series of small victories, all the while calling for compromise and reasonable accommodation. This article documents a few examples of how he has achieved this.

Banzhaf on outdoor smoking bans

The first example comes from 1977, when Banzhaf debated with the Tobacco Institute's Walter Merryman on the Joel Spivak Show. In a lively debate, an audience member said she believed that any attempt to ban smoking in the street would be unreasonable and unenforceable. Banzhaf whole-heartedly agreed:

(Skip to part 3 - 5.55 minutes in)

John Banzhaf, 1977:

"Where you try to ban it entirely on a street or something like that, obviously you're going to have problems. But what we have found is if you have a law, if you provide separate smoking sections, if the restrictions are not onerous or whatever, if you don't have large fines or make it a major criminal problem it a then you have reasonable compliance."

Of course, no one was seriously suggesting that smoking be banned in the street in 1977. It was not until 2006 that an outdoor ban was mooted in Calabasas, California. When this law was debated, Banzhaf gave testimony in support of it, now claiming that "even the small amounts of tobacco smoke hovering over a sidewalk CAN be enough to trigger an asthmatic attack".

In his testimony, Banzhaf explicitly addressed the issue of enforcement, now with a very different point of view:

John Banzhaf, 2006: 

"Equally unavailing is the argument that outdoor smoking bans may be difficult to enforce. Exactly the same argument has always been made for indoor smoking bans, but time after time - from elevators to airplanes to office buildings - they have been proven to be dead wrong as they are now being proven wrong regarding other outdoor smoking bans on beaches, in parks, and around building entrances."

Banzhaf on smoking/nonsmoking sections

In another television appearance (in 1986), Banzhaf said he wanted smoking banned in hospitals "with the exception of smoking sections". When another guest - Bob Greene - complained that anti-smoking groups were trying to make it illegal for him to smoke in a private room of a hospital, Banzhaf accused him of "creating a straw man".

The ASH director was a picture of sincerity when he put forward his compromise:

Banzhaf, 1986: 

Banzhaf: Most of the anti-smoking organisations are not against Bob smoking in his private room in a hospital, smoking in his office, smoking outdoors or smoking anywhere where it's away from nonsmokers."

Bob Greene: What about a domed stadium where professional football is being played?

Banzhaf: Then you have separate smoking and nonsmoking sections. You wouldn't object to that would you?!

But seven years later, in 1993, Banzhaf gave a very different reply. Having spent 25 years campaigning for no-smoking sections, he now flatly dismissed them:

"A non-smoking section? There ain't no such thing. Tobacco smoke drifts, it is recirculated."

Banzhaf has since gone much further, saying:

"The ultimate goal is to have a smoke-free society, by which we don't mean that nobody will smoke, but it will be something like spitting which is not done politely in public. We will not be tolerating it on public places, streets, outdoors or anywhere else."

Smoking in bars

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, John Banzhaf would accuse many other people of constructing "straw men" when they suggested that his ultimate aim was to have smoking banned in all public places and workplaces. He made this very point to Tobacco Institute spokesman Bill Dwyer when they debated on a radio show in 1979:

Banzhaf, 1979:

"Bill, this isn't prohibition. You know it and I know it. We have no objection whatsoever if you and the other folks who want to smoke want to go into smokeasies and smoke all day long. We just object that you do it around us."

But when, more recently, Washington DC discussed exempting some bars from its smoking ban because they were losing money, Banzhaf sung a very different tune:

Banzhaf, 2007:

"I don't think there should be any exemptions at all," adding that: "The idea that we have to accommodate smokers is changing." 

Smoking bans on aeroplanes

A further example of Banzhaf insisting that he only wanted to meet smokers half way comes from 1984, when he debated with the Tobacco Institute's Anne Browder on television. The subject was banning smoking on flights of two hours or less:

(8.10 minutes in)

John Banzhaf, 1984:

"What we are talking about here is not a prohibition of smoking on airplanes. Rather it is in the nature of a compromise... We are asking for a ban only on flights of two hours or less because we feel this is a reasonable compromise based upon the needs of the smoker and the requirements of the smoker and social justice."

In 1988, bowing to the request for a 'reasonable compromise', the House of Representatives voted for a bill to ban smoking on flights of up to two hours by the narrow margin of 198 votes to 193. With it ended any further talk of a 'reasonable compromise.' The anti-smoking lobby immediately complained about the inherent inconsistency of the legislation and talked about the "loophole" that exempted longer flights. In 1990, the ban was extended to all flights.

Looking back in 2003, Banzhaf admitted that the piecemeal approach had all been part of the plan:

"When we started to fight for nonsmokers, we started with airplanes. No one then thought we'd be successful at banning smoking in bars, banning smoking outdoors. We took the easier ones first. Each step builds on the one that comes before."

The slippery slope 'fallacy'

Despite such admissions, the anti-smoking movement has always resisted the slippery slope argument. Stanton Glantz, for example, has written (pdf):

"The 'slippery slope' argument is one that the tobacco industry has routinely raised to oppose policies against its interests, including smokefree policies, decisions by arts and cultural organizations not to accept tobacco money, advertising restrictions, and other policies. These predicted subsequent problems simply have not materialized"

The idea that these "subsequent problems" have "not materialized" is risible when one considers the 'sin taxes' and advertising bans currently being enacted against various drinks and food products around the world. The possibility of the anti-smoking campaign being extended to food and drink was often raised by Banzhaf's critics in the 1990s, but the notion was given short shrift by the ASH founder. In 1991, for example, he said:

"They use the 'slippery slope' argument. 'My God, if they can do this to smokers today they can do this to people who eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream or whatever.'"

Of all the hostages to fortune that Banzhaf has left in his 40 year career, this is the most ironic. Today, Banzhaf is at the forefront of the food wars. Just thirteen years after scoffing at the idea of Haagen Dazs coming under attack, he referred to ice-cream as a "coronary in a cone" and sent a letter to six ice-cream manufacturers telling them that they had been "put on legal notice that they may be sued if they don't begin disclosing just how much artery-clogging fat and calories their offerings contain."

These companies included Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's, Cold Stone Creamery, Friendly's, TCBY and - of course - Haagen-Dazs.

*Videos come courtesy of the superb archive.org and forces.org.


Dick Puddlecote said...

In short, an odious, pus-filled, lying weasel.

Great piece.

"In 1990, the ban was extended to all flights."

I take it this was internal flights? As I smoked on American Airlines from Heathrow to LA in 1994.

Christopher Snowdon said...


It was all domestic flights (with, I think, an exemption for Alaskan flights). Gradually, they extended this to all flights. I don't have the references to hand but I recall that this policy virtually led to a diplomatic incident with Russia, who were not at all happy about the policy.


Anonymous said...

It is a wonder to me than someone has not made a career out of trying to find out just what this man's private vices are. Remember those who scream loudest about the sins of others are generally hiding a BIG secret of their own.

Fredrik Eich said...

I thought my old chum bonzo said "requirements of the smoker and our social customs" rather than "requirements of the smoker and social justice".
I remember a colleage of mine complaining that a chap had started work in her office, ~1991, and had managed to persuade managment to make her office smoke free despite the fact that the person in question was in a minortiy of one out of seven people in that room, 6 smokers and 1 non smoker.
I said that I did not think that just because he was in a minority of one, that that is on it's own a reason not to ban smoking in their office. She said "but where will it all end?".
In an effort to cheer her up, I said "don't worry they will never ban smoking in pubs and that's the main thing." Since then smoking has been banned in pubs, they are closing at 53 a week and an often cited reason of justification is that smokers are a minority. Every time this is pointed out, it reminds me of this conversation I had all those years ago. It all seemed so reasonable (sort of) at the time ... To say I now regret taking the position I did then is a gross understatment. The tide will turn.