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Facts and attitudes

This morning I was prodded by the scourge of epidemiocracy, Chris Snowden, to read this piece by Theodore Dalrymple. What most struck me was not the main argument (I find predictable agreement almost as wearing as disagreement) but this piece of supplementary information:

A higher proportion of the Dutch population smokes than average for a developed country (27 percent), and fewer Dutch people are aware of secondhand, or second-lung, smoke — that breathed in from other people’s tobacco — than any other comparable country.

Why should that be? I think it demands an explanation. Certainly the Dutch population cannot easily be classed as ill-educated or poorly-informed. (I have been sworn at by a drunk tramp on an Amsterdam tram who switched instantly to English invective when he realised that it was going to be more effective in my case.) My mind leapfrogged towards ideas about the Dutch liberal tradition. They choose not to know, because they do not like to hassle people about their private behaviour, perhaps…

Unfortunately there are no sources quoted. When I looked for stats and background info, I found something even odder. That remarkable factoid contains no truth. The OECD statistical library agrees with that 27% average – if it is actually daily smoking for males 15 and over. But it places The Netherlands fractionally below average, equal with Germany and slightly above Belgium for the proportion of males who smoke (26%), with slightly more women than either (20%).

How about “awareness of second-hand smoke”. The points in the article about “relatively high” Dutch smokishness appear in less critical articles such as this one in Salon. (Which itself hints that it relies as a source on one Lies Van Gennip, director of the national tobacco control center.) Here we have a hint of the source for the “awareness” figure.

In a global survey on smokers’ awareness, only 61 percent of Dutch smokers agreed second-hand smoke was dangerous to non-smokers — much lower than smokers elsewhere, including Mauritius, China, Brazil and Mexico.

“Dutch smokers are among the least informed about the harms of smoking and second-hand smoke,” said Geoff Fong, at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who heads a program that monitors smoking policies worldwide.

Note the built-in interpretation: failure to agree counts as being ill-informed. I googled down the global survey mentioned. It appears in the BMJ for 4 April 2011 under the headline “Dutch smokers are “alarmingly” ignorant of harms of passive smoking, study finds.” The original findings do indeed appear under the aegis of the University of Waterloo here (pdf) But are published on behalf of ‘The International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project: ITC Netherlands Survey’ — the presentation of which suggests it is intended to drive Dutch policy, and the naming of which suggests we should worry about that ‘global survey’ point. Some (more) cherry-picking, perhaps?

Inspecting a bit further suggests there is reason to worry. See here. The ITCPEP doesn’t do a global survey. It surveys different countries at different times using different methods. The most recent French survey (2009) was a telephone poll with respondents reimbursed; the most recent Dutch one (2011) was an online survey. The critical common question is not “Do you think your smoking harms others?” but “How often, in the last month have you thought about the harm your smoking might be doing to other people?” In both surveys, the critical question is preceded by questions about respondents’ attempts to give up and their degree of addiction, but in the Dutch survey that is the beginning. In the French survey there is much prequalification apparatus including emphasis of the importance of the survey itself, and information sought about the individual respondent’s household. Longitudinal comparisons on a single country might make sense if individual surveys are consistent; but comparing attitudes in two countries on this basis does not.

We know nothing from the ITCPEP about the beliefs of either Dutch or French smokers concerning the dangers of environmental tobacco smoke. They were not asked. But we cannot even compare their relative preoccupation with whether they may be harming others—what they were asked—because they were asked at different times, in different ways, in different contexts.

The only reason for making the comparison in the first place was to condemn Dutch views as “ignorance”, but even the variance in views is a pseudo-statistical phantom, if you can be bothered to look into the detail.

I am interested in variation in public attitudes and in political culture and their relationship to policy. But it is devilish hard to find out about those relationships when even critical discussion, such as Dr Dalrymple’s, is predicated on ‘facts’ whose selection and interpretation is determined by the attitudes of interested researchers. Even specialist commentators are seldom suspicious enough to do more than re-word the press release and cast it in the light of their own attitudes.

10 comments to Facts and attitudes

  • Government, consumer sales and societal attitudes are all now bought by advertising, to such an extent that it is seriously worrying.

    The biggest dangers, IMHO, have been for some time, the claims for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) and the desirability of greater governmental/political globalisation (be it EU or UN, and especially on unification of economic policy).

    On these two, we now see something of an unravelling, but only after approaching a half century of one and more than that of the other. There is still a very long a way to go.

    The anti-smoking lobby is more minor in its effects than either of the above, though it contains less of an argument (wrong though that might be) for the common good. It’s main danger is the creeping justification for suppressing individual choice for a societal untruth.

    Will it be a Happy New Year?

    Best regards

  • Gerry N.

    I don’t smoke, I never have. Both my parents were heavy smokers and I have suffered no measurable ill effects. So let me state here that any entity promoting the concept of second hand smoke as harmful falls on deaf ears here. The anti smokers I’ve dealt with are interested in only one thing and it is not health, it is the POWER to control other’s behavior. Perhaps a good solid left hook to the nose would beneficially realign their efforts.

    (PS) I am now 67 years old, healthy and very easy to pis…..annoy.

  • Note the built-in interpretation: failure to agree counts as being ill-informed.

    This is one of my pet peeves.

  • Glenn

    Smokers have the right to do what they want in private.
    But they have no right to pollute the air of others in public. Simple.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    You’re hopelessly out of touch with modern sensibilities: to quote the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone … is entitled to his own facts.”

  • Kim du Toit

    “Smokers have the right to do what they want in private.
    But they have no right to pollute the air of others in public. Simple.”

    Alas, not so simple.

    If by “public” you mean, for example, an enclosed space like a pub or lounge, I might agree with you, albeit marginally.

    If you mean “anywhere, including the open air, where others breathe”, I’d tell you to GFY. I was recently told about someone who complained about someone else smoking ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET, waving their arms around in pantomime of choking etc etc etc. I would have told the complainant to move to a desert island — as long as they didn’t mind the occasional whiff of smoke from a passing ship.

    As far as I’m concerned, the open air is just that. Occasionally, someone is going to breathe in an unpleasant odour — TFB. As members of society, we sometimes have to tolerate the behaviour of others that we find obnoxious — that’s just the way it goes.

    And one day, I would really, TREALLY like to find a properly-managed and controlled double-blind test which establishes that second-hand smoke does, in fact, cause harm to others, as opposed to most of the nonsense I’ve read about it.

    Bah. Save us from the delicate noses of the perpetually-sensitive.

  • guy herbert

    Facts and principles are malleable. It is all attitude. What neo-puritans cannot abide is the idea that somebody somewhere might be enjoying themselves.

    You’d think that if an alternative to smoking were to become available that was cheaper, odourless, involved no CO, CO2 or tar inhalation, and no exposure of anyone to secondary products of combustion, then it would be welcomed by our benevolent authorities. Er, no: they’ll ban it.

  • But they have no right to pollute the air of others in public.

    Fine. But a restaurant, shop or club is private property. If you extend ‘in public’ to include that then I would say you have it arse-about-face, ie you have no right to tell a property owner what terms and conditions they can set for access to their property… if they say “smokers welcome” then you are free to stay the hell away if that offends you.

  • llamas

    Two observations that may go some way to explaining why the Dutch are failing to comply with the thought-diktats of their betters:

    The use of tobacco in all its many and wonderful forms is woved into mainstream Dutch culture in a way that I have never seen anyplace else in the world. Even the French pale in comparison. From Opa’s Willem II to the truck-driver’s saffie, smoking has always been far-more common and accepted in the Netherlands. Part of this may be due, in turn, to the fact that the Dutch ways of smoking tend to smell a lot better. A Dutch tobacconists’s shop smells like no other, and there are few more satisfying smokes than a roll-up of half-zware shag – a product virtually unknown elsewhere.

    And then, of course, the fastest-growing segments of the Dutch population are immigrants from the Near and Far East, among whom the current orthodoxies about the evils of tobacco use have not yet gained much traction.

    The point about “unconvinced = ignorant” is well-made and well-taken. The Dutch are no fools, and they see that is’s impossible to square their historically-better-than-average life expectancy with their historically-epic use of tobacco. But of course, such direct and simple observation cannot be allowed to impede the forces of Improvement. It’s for their own good.



  • Laird

    I’m glad other have already taken Glenn to task for his politically correct but thoroughly illiberal remark. He clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of “private”. My response would have been considerably less polite.