The last time I commented on a Radio 5 show, the presenter read it and left a comment, so I shall be careful what I say about Richard Bacon's debate about outdoor smoking bans last night. I have no idea where Bacon stands on the smoking issue. Like most people, he probably has no strong view either way. Still, he makes quite the devil's advocate, generally making the opposing view rather more forcefully than the person invited to do it themselves.
You can listen to the show here for 7 days if you're in the UK. A few things struck me about it...
Firstly, of all the people who called in, only two supported banning smoking outdoors, and they were both tobacco control professionals. One worked for a charity which, I must confess, I have never heard of - Heart Research UK - and the second only owned up to working in tobacco control after he had been on the line for several minutes.
Secondly, the passive smoking theory has been well and truly discarded in favour of overt paternalism and the tyranny of the majority. The Heart Research UK spokeswoman was openly prohibitionist in a way that no one would have dared before July 2007.
Thirdly, the BBC have titled this show 'Should smoking be banned in all public places?' How quickly definitions of 'public places' shift and slide.
Finally, and most importantly, I was amazed by the mangling of the basic facts. Perhaps those of us who follow these issues closely assume too much of the media but it was repeatedly said - by the presenter - that the smoking ban has made a million people give up smoking. I have never heard this figure even from ASH or the Department of Health.
I read this in The Independent in June 2008:
The nationwide smoking ban has triggered the biggest fall in smoking ever seen in England, a report says today.
More than two billion fewer cigarettes were smoked and 400,000 people quit the habit since the ban was introduced a year ago, which researchers say will prevent 40,000 deaths over the next 10 years.
But then I read this in the Daily Mail earlier this year:
The ban on smoking in public has failed to increase the number of people quitting, a report revealed yesterday.
And then earlier this year:
The number of smokers giving up has barely increased since the ban, despite a hike in the amount spent by the NHS on quitting services.
Figures show that nearly a quarter fewer smokers gave up the habit between April and September last year compared to 2007 - the year the ban on smoking in public places was brought in.
I don't know how many people have stopped smoking since the ban but it certainly isn't anything like a million. The most reliable source is usually the Office of National Statistics, which said - in March 2009 - that adult smoking prevalence was 21%, down from 22% before the ban. Since there were 9.5 million smokers before the ban (although estimates differ) that reduction equates to around 432,000 successful quitters.
A 1% drop in smoking prevalence over two years is very much in line with the long-term decline so it is tenuous to say that this drop was attributable to the smoking ban at all. In time, we may even see the Irish phenomenon happen here and have many more people smoking.
The other statistic cited was that smokers cost the NHS £10 billion. Again, I've never heard this figure before. I've remember the old £1.5 billion well. I'm aware that there is now a £2.7 billion figure being bandied around (which began circulating, strangely enough, after the anti-alcohol lobby started saying that booze was costing The Health £2.7 billion). But never £10 billion. Even a Google search failed to unearth a single internet crank giving that number, so where on earth did it come from?
I ask this as a serious question. The number of people who check their facts on government websites and medical journals is tiny compared to the listenership of the average radio show. Regular readers will know that I quibble with official statistics from time to time - and I realise that I'm whistling in the wind by doing so - but even the official sources must wonder why they bother when they hear numbers being plucked out of thin air on national radio.