Failures of Science: False Claims That Smoking Is Harmless

Updated on November 3, 2018
David Halk profile image

David has a lifelong fascination with the sciences and nature, and enjoys writing about them and other topics.

Science Is Not Always Right

Science is a method of reaching knowledge through observation, experimentation, and analysis. It strives to be objective, to seek the truth with no false preconceptions, free of the influences of society and tradition. It prides itself on reason and logic. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, science many times gets things wrong, and sometimes scientists will insist and demand that they are right and a fact is a fact, and that we had all just better accept that, this often from a point of unassailable authority. Then something happens, the truth comes out, and it is something completely different from what we’ve been taught.

The science of smoking, tobacco, and cigarettes is an example of just such a circumstance. There was a time in the past when science proclaimed that smoking is harmless.

The Modern Consensus on Smoking

Scientists have for the past several decades agreed that smoking is harmful to the human body, in fact it is very unhealthy and deadly. Cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases, and reduces the health of smokers in general. Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. Smoking also causes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In addition to lung cancer, it can cause cancer in almost any organ of the body including the bladder, blood, cervix, colon and rectum, esophagus, kidney, larynx, liver, mouth, pancreas, stomach and trachea. Cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. This is nearly one in five deaths. One of every three cancer deaths in the United States in caused by smoking.

The Scientific View of Smoking in the Past

Science has many times downplayed the harmfulness of smoking, denied that it is harmful, or has outright encouraged smokers to not worry and keep smoking. This was prevalent from at least the mid 1800’s to the first half of the 1900’s. In the mid twentieth century campaigns to educate Americans on the dangers of smoking began to take root and there was a decline in smoking. When the surgeon general announced that smoking caused lung cancer in 1964, the anti-smoking campaign hit its peak. But even then, the surgeon general’s report was released on a Saturday to minimize its impact on tobacco company stocks, revealing how powerful the tobacco companies were then.

But during those decades before the 1964 report, the public was much less informed about the dangers of smoking. There were some scientists and doctors from the 1850’s and onward who spoke out on different harmful aspects of smoking, but there were many who also spoke the opposite and supported cigarettes and smoking. Many of these pro-smoking scientists were very adamant in saying so, often resorting to ridiculing those who warned of the dangers of smoking.

What follows is an examination of several articles written by scientists, mostly for the science journal Scientific American, that illustrate the wrongness and sometimes outright arrogance of scientific experts before the public became fully aware of the dangers of smoking.

Cover of Scientific American Magazine, Oct 29, 1859
Cover of Scientific American Magazine, Oct 29, 1859

Scientist Wrongly Attributes Cancer to Heat, Not Smoke

The Effects of Smoking in France

Scientific American, October 29, 1859

The remarkable research made by M. Bouisson upon the danger of smoking has attracted the notice of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, and has been rewarded with high praise. The horrors hitherto unknown, or unacknowledged, with which smokers are threatened are sufficient upon bare anticipation to ruin the revenue and the pipe-makers also. Cancer in the mouth M. Bouisson declares to have grown so frequent from the use of tobacco that it now forms one of the most dreaded diseases in the hospitals. The writers on cancer previous to our day mention the rare occurrence of the disease in the lips, and it has therefore become evident that it must have increased of late years in proportion with the smoking of tobacco.

It becomes evident that it (lip cancer) is owing more to the constant application of heat to the lips than to the inhaling of the nicotine, that the disease is generated. With the Orientals, who are careful to maintain the coolness of the mouthpiece by the transmission of the smoke through perfumed water, the disease is unknown. M. Bouisson advises a general crusade to be preached by the doctors of every country against the immoderate use of tobacco, as being the only means of exterminating the habit.

In this article excerpt it is apparent that the suspicion of smoking related to mouth cancer are in an early stage. It is commendable that the researcher identified smoking as causing the cancer. But then he diminishes its danger by suggesting it is only the heat on the lips that transfers the cancer, not the smoke itself. Although he advises moderation and eventual abstinence from smoking, his suggestion would be likely to allow many people to keep smoking by methods that allowed the lips to stay cool, as he mentioned about the Asian method of smoking.

Scientist Assures Smokers That Smoking Is Harmless

A Brief for the Cigarette

Scientific American, February 5, 1898

The paper cigarette, against which so much has been said and written, has an able champion in W. H. Garrison, whose address on the subject before the Medico Legal Society at its last meeting attracted considerable attention. Mr. Garrison has brought a strong array of facts to shatter what he termed “the unreasonable prejudice which at present exists against the paper cigarette".

Apparently all the agitation against the fragrant cigarette was born in prejudice like that other similar fiction, "chloroforming" or "poisoning from canned meat."

"Cigarettes are generally made from tobacco of good quality. Sensational statements that they are prepared from the filthiest tobacco and dirtiest refuse are not worthy credence, and can be easily refuted."

Prof. Wiley says that in many samples purchased in the open market he failed to find any trace of arsenic or opium or any of its active principles … pronounc(ed) the American cigarette free from opium or arsenic.

(On the) inhalation of the smoke; Sir Henry Thompson said that the cigarette was the least injurious form of smoking, and Meyer Dutch wrote that "the inhaled smoke rarely passes beyond the bronchi, very little ever entering the air vesicles."

Thus science lays another robust falsehood in the dust. The cigarette smoker may henceforth enjoy his rings of smoke in peace of mind.

In this article excerpt, the scientist first claims that the mention of the dangers of cigarettes is “unreasonable prejudice”. He then goes on to refute claims of certain poisons in the tobacco. It is interesting to note here that he also dismisses canned food poisoning as “fiction”, when in fact botulism is borne of poorly-canned food. He makes the claim that “inhaled smoke rarely passes beyond the bronchi”. This is plainly false, as we now know that when cigarette smoke is inhaled, the chemicals contained in it are absorbed by the lungs and released into the bloodstream, from where they pass into the brain, heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, muscle, and fat tissue. This scientist ends the article with a pat on smokers’ shoulders and encouragement to keep on smoking with no worries. One must wonder how many people’s health had deteriorated due to reading and believing this scientific report.

Scientist Lashes Out At Those Who Dare Think Smoking Is Unhealthy

Cigarettes and Science

Scientific American, March 12, 1898

Here are the facts. An article of commerce called a "cigarette " is placed on the market to the extent of 4,000,000,000 annually. Allegations are made…that this is a menace to the health of the community because it contains (harmful chemicals) and produces insanity. No more serious accusations than these could be made against any commodity purchasable in the open market.

It is so simple to ascertain the truth. Investigate the ingredients by chemistry and obtain the verdict of insanity experts. The conclusion…of scientific experts cannot be gainsaid.

The Medico Legal Society did this…(they) showed that no trace of anything except pure tobacco and pure paper entered into the composition of American cigarettes. The verdict of these chemists was unanimous and therefore conclusive. Letters from neurologists and superintendents of insane asylums (state) that cigarettes had never caused insanity.

The lay mind had so entirely absorbed the idea of the noxiousness of the cigarette that the scientific results (to the contrary) were actually "news". This age is proud of calling itself "scientific," but while opinions so wholly erroneous may be commonly held to such an extent that the bare announcement of their absurdity is held to be "news", we are a long way from (acting) "scientific".

In this article excerpt, the scientist vehemently attempts to debunk two adverse claims against cigarette smoking at that time (1898): that it contained harmful chemicals and caused insanity. That smoking didn’t cause insanity is correct, but he was dead wrong on tobacco smoke not containing any harmful chemicals. Cigarette smoke contains over 30 carcinogens and causes lung cancer by damaging the cells that line the lungs. Changes in the lung tissue begin almost immediately. Over enough time, the damage causes cells to act abnormally and eventually cancer may develop.

This is a scientist telling us (or those who lived at the time) that there is nothing wrong with cigarette smoke and it won’t hurt your health. He pounds this proclamation into the heads of his readers with the assertion that “scientific experts cannot be gainsaid.” If scientists say it, just believe it. It has to be true. He then goes on to say that anyone who disagrees with his assessment is unscientific. Again, the scientists of the day acting as the ultimate authority on truth, only later to be proven wrong – deadly wrong.

Support of Tobacco For Profit Via the Department of Agriculture

Improvements In Our Tobacco.

Scientific American, August 12, 1899

The Department of Agriculture has now a number of experts at work on the question of improving our tobacco and making it as desirable for consumption as that imported. We do not know of any subject to which the department could devote its attention which would bring back such a large financial return as the improvement in our domestic tobacco, which will dispense with the importation of such vast quantities of wrappers and filling tobacco.

This article excerpt demonstrates how scientists in our own government worked toward the promotion and proliferation of tobacco. Here the author speaks of aims to improve the tobacco in the sense of making it desirable for consumption, for America to out-produce foreign countries’ production of the weed. In other words, The Department of Agriculture’s “experts” were working hard to get more Americans smoking American tobacco to help the tobacco companies get richer, regardless of any health concerns for the general public, for which they seem completely oblivious. Apparently the tobacco companies had the federal government in their back pockets as early as this, 1899.

One final example of science’s disastrous evaluation of smoking is found in another magazine, Popular Science, in a 1910 article which declared “there is no scientific evidence that the moderate use of tobacco by healthy mature men produces any beneficial or injurious physical effects that can be measured.” Health organizations now say there is no healthy level of smoking, nor of exposure to secondhand smoke.

The Authority of Science

Science is so well respected now in the modern age because it of its use of logic, reason, and objectivity. When scientists study a subject applying analysis with hard data and coming to conclusions based on the facts, their veracity is hard to dispute. We have been told many times that scientists believe something to be a fact, and simply because they have said so, it must be true and cannot be debated.

But science is not an immutable element of the universe. It is a tool invented by humans and used by humans. Scientists are human beings, and as such they can be just as influenced by government, corporations, and peer pressure as they are by facts. Part of the genius of science is that its claims are supposed to be open to skepticism, that others are allowed to question what has been proposed, even those things that are widely accepted by a vast majority of scientists. Too often today scientists come to a consensus then ridicule or silence anyone who dares to call their conclusions wrong, who dare to propose any other solutions that oppose the scientific status quo, just as they did a hundred and some years ago with smoking.

Think about some of the assertions that scientists adhere to today and expect everyone to accept as fact. There are at least a few, if not many, topics upon which science makes claims today that might make you wonder if it is correct. If there is some concept marketed by scientists and the media as a given fact and it gives you a little twinge of doubt, realize that they could just possibly be wrong.

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