If one small lie could stop someone from ever smoking?

Years ago at a conference I attended, we had a discussion going about how much misleading information was present in materials which were aimed at getting people to stop or not start smoking. One of the more persistent ideas was that nicotine was poisonous. But a doctor who worked at an addictions clinic said that he supported leaving that in place because they had found that that one characterization had been their most effective tool in getting smokers to stop and stay stopped.

Later that day, my colleague asked me if I could stop my daughter from ever trying smoking just by telling one lie, would I do it?

Its easy enough to just say no because of course not only might one lie lead to another but any one lie would make all other communications suspect. But we are talking about parental impulses here and as much as I believe that everyone has the right to make their own choices about these things, and that there are worse things she could be doing, the thought of her drawing smoke into her pristeen lungs is not a pleasant one. I still said no.

But this question of whether it is permissible to lie (or deliberately manipulate popular pre-existing false beliefs) if it serves the greater good will always be with us.

In tobacco harm reduction we think that the most important thing is that people who use or might use tobacco should know about the health risks and should be aware (and have available) all the safer nicotine alternatives. Smoking is a choice but it should be within the context of the knowledge that there are safer ways to get nicotine. I guess one way of looking at it is, though for some people smoking is the best nicotine option given their circumstances, for many smokers that is not the case, and with that in mind, a decline in the number of smokers is a positive development.

So we want people to have options, but we would like to see smoking become less common. And not because it is smoking but because of those avoidable diseases.

We really would like to see smokers move to using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes but we have not used the fears of 2nd hand and 3rd hand smoke to do so. You will see some vendors using these arguments but we have not. And the temptation is there because tapping into those misperceptions could be quite effective. But the problem is that we don’t believe that stuff and we also like to think that one of the strict dividing lines between the standard anti-smoking dogma and our own is one of paying attention to the evidence.

Its more than just a question of strategies.

If we are evidence bound it means that we have to ignore certain tools and it means that when the evidence changes we have to change as well. We have that slight overlap with the anti-smoking groups of wanting to see the numbers of smokers decline but for us it is because that would indicate a healthier population and for them it just seems to be an aim in itself. Since they are ready to use each and every tool to fight smoking (including vilification) their movement is safe from any changes in the science.

For instance, if a week from now, incontrovertible evidence came out that smoking had about the same risk as using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes, and people knew about it, we would be out of business.

Would they?

This is also about the larger ethical implications. If we do not base our actions on what we think is the true picture of the world, then by extension we sanction others to knowingly manipulate our beliefs and actions with false information.

-Paul L. Bergen


22 thoughts on “If one small lie could stop someone from ever smoking?

  1. Interesting. One might think that lying to stop someone from doing something like smoking might be the easiest solution but I’d have to say it’s only short term with a big downfall. Eventually the person that has been lied to will find evidence that proves the information they were given is wrong. Then they will more than likely distrust the person who lied to them and essentially take everything that person tells them “with a grain of salt.”

  2. Not only that but it might, again using smoking as an example, cause them not not only to go back to smoking because they found it was a lie but then might then consider any negative information about smoking to be wrong.

  3. The idea that one small lie could save an untold amount of lives is something called noble cause corruption.

    It is understandable that people working in public health want to save lives but where does ethics enter into the whole equation?

    Is it ethical to lie to people to get them to make choices you think are right?
    Is it ethical to withhold information from people or exaggerate claims of health risks when you know in your heart of hearts that you are doing the right thing?

    What is the right thing?

    As a person who no longer smokes but supports the choices of other people to smoke if they wish to,I have only one thing to say.

    We depend on you to tell us the absolute truth good or bad but when one unethical researcher or tobacco control group exaggerates claims or even perhaps unwittingly lies it makes the whole of tobacco research look bad.

    Lying to people to get them to do what you want is the worst breech of ethics there is.
    You are our doctors,our scientists and the ones we look to for answers,when one of you lies to us it destroys our faith in the whole medical and scientific community.

    Once faith is gone it can’t be won back.

  4. When the lie comes undone, the effects can be devastating. In the 60’s, an entire generation of young people began experimenting with every drug imaginable. Why? They learned that “Reefer Madness” was a big fat lie. People don’t commit manslaughter, suicide, and rape as a result of using cannibis. And if “they” were lying about the dangers of that one drug, “they” were probably lying about the dangers of all drugs. Sadly, many in that generation did end up dead, permanently disabled, or in jail. These unfortunate outcomings might have been avoided if young people felt they could trust the older generation to tell the truth.

  5. Wonderful and thoughtful article. Your last paragraph:

    “This is also about the larger ethical implications. If we do not base our actions on what we think is the true picture of the world, then by extension we sanction others to knowingly manipulate our beliefs and actions with false information. ”

    sums it up beautifully. From when I first started fighting the antismoking movement many years ago I have focused on their lies. Their lies have been their greatest strength because without them they would never have succeeded in their push for smoking bans. But their lies are also their greatest weakness because once we’ve managed to convince people of the fact that they DO lie then people will largely stop supporting them.

    The internet has been an extremely important tool for us in getting accurate information out to people who would otherwise never see it. We certainly don’t have the funding for ten minutes of ad time a day on MTV (and countless hundreds or thousands of minutes elsewhere) and while a news story might devote just a line or two to a “dissenting” voice buried amidst paragraphs of misleading sound bites and statements from “responsible authorities,” here on the internet we are able to take the time and detail needed to expose the lies and get people thinking.

    Unfortunately the antismoking lobby is quite aware of this and is beginning to seek ways of clamping down on this last bastion of free speech. I first became aware of these attacks about three years ago but was pleased to see they never got much traction. They’ve got a new approach now though: using their old tried and true trick of playing “the pink lungs of the children” against “Evil Big Tobacco.”

    Check the newest “study” in Tobacco Control on this:


    Despite the fact that they’ve got such total control over the tobacco industry that they probably know how many squares of toilet paper Mr. P. Morris uses each day, they’re setting up the paper tiger of the evil tobacco companies sneaking homemade videos online to seduce children. Do they have any evidence of this? Of course not. So what do they use to support the argument? Simple: they say some of the videos are too well done for any idiot smokers to have made them.

    Sure, it’s a weak argument, but they’ll repeat it with variations over and over again until it becomes “folk knowledge” and they’re able to get the world internet under their thumb. Communist China might not be strong enough to do it, but never underestimate the antismoking lobby.

    Their one great weakness is their lies: that’s where we have to hit them, over and over again, until people realize how they’ve been misled.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

    • “Their lies have been their greatest strength because without them they would never have succeeded in their push for smoking bans. But their lies are also their greatest weakness …”

      Eloquently put and I couldn’t agree more.

      Earlier this year, some of us testified before state legislators to stop a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes. The ALA had a lobbyist there, and the rest of the alphabet-soup groups had signed on in support.

      By the time we heard about it, the bill had already zipped through the Senate, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine a good outcome. Fortunately, the committee listened and didn’t pass the bill (for now, anyway). Out in the hall after the hearing, one of the legislators told me something to the effect of, “Usually we defer to the ALA, but something about this just isn’t right.”

      Yeah, the ALA lobbyist lied. That’s what wasn’t right, and it was glaringly obvious that she’d lied. So I’d say that after the lies themselves, their second greatest weakness is their sheer arrogance in assuming they’re above the truth.

      The secondhand smoke insanity (along with the perception of smokeless tobacco) is a far more long-standing, universally ingrained lie than anything to do with e-cigarettes, of course, but I believe these groups have already dug their own graves. We (smokers, vapers, snusers, honest researchers) just have to stand together, show up, and tell the truth for as long as it takes.

      Am I utterly naive to believe that the truth wins out in the end? (If I am, I don’t want to know–it’s … yanno … for my own good. :D)

  6. I’m probably going to regret posting this, but I’ll do it anyway because it might be and interesting discussion. I don’t think anyone can disagree with anything you’ve written here – in theory. However, the practical application is difficult as we work to keep e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco legal.

    When we ask local policy makers who are considering yet another tobacco law or clean air act not to include harm reduction products in their ordinances, we are by default conceding to TC propaganda. How do we reconcile our goal of free use of smoking alternatives while adhering to these ethics without protesting these bans wholesale? We know that if we oppose clean air laws outright we will be dismissed as nicotine junkies or industry insiders and it does out cause little good.

    You may be talking about winning an ethical war that was long ago lost and that has little to do with the realities of the ongoing battles that make up our tobacco policies.

    • Janet,

      You have me wondering about an angle I wasn’t considering. Brilliant thoughts and will have to do a post on that soon.

      On the fly, in other words writing a little before thinking, compliance in one area could bleed into another, that is, if you are forcing people to only smoke under certain conditions you can probably use the same argument to limit the alternatives to smoking. On the other hand, almost every behavior is circumscribed somewhat so there is no good precedent for smoking being allowed every wbere either.

      Another balancing act but nothing wrong with that….its what common sense ends up being about.

      As I said, need to delve deeper into your provocative thought. And perhaps others here will weigh in as well.

  7. “If one small lie could stop someone from ever smoking?”

    Paul, I came across what I think is a time line problem in a current study.

    Please noted that the date of this press release is August 23, 2010 and the time would appear to be 8:01 (am?)

    Now the problem with the date is that the study was still on going up to and included August 24th.
    Page 16 – 19
    PM2.5 Readings on Ottawa Patio, August 23, 2010
    PM2.5 Readings along Laurier Ave. in Downtown Ottawa, Aug 24, 2010.

    now what am I to make of this, factual, predetermined, a lie?


    • Without knowing a little more it is hard to tell. As you point out the press release predates the end of the experiment but the release itself which is about giving out information on the 25th does not in itself state any new information (just the usual “public awareness” and not necessarily any findings). You will notice that a more detailed press release (http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/New-Study-on-Outdoor-Second-Hand-Smoke-in-Ottawa-1309489.htm ) comes out on the 25th so it looks like the first was more of a placeholder for expected developments.

      • Paul, the first press release does include:
        Why: To raise awareness about the dangerous level of second-hand smoke on restaurant and bar patios in Ottawa

        is this statement alone not a lie?

    • Don’t think that would qualify…if you or I (who don’t believe it) said it, it would be a lie. In their case, they are expressing something they hold to be true independent of this study. The study itself does not prove anything about the danger of second hand smoke, all it does is report on the measurements they took.

      It might be wrong but I don’t think its a lie.

  8. ”We know that if we oppose clean air laws outright we will be dismissed as nicotine junkies or industry insiders and it does out cause little good.”

    And they count on exactly that to continue spewing their lies. Ad homs is the only argument they could muster when cornered to give logical explanations to their incoherent rhetoric.

    Whether you’re fighting for harm reduction or the right to be able to continue to enjoy a legal product without harassment, the one thing in common we should all be fighting is the lies. We should expose their lies at every turn and stop being afraid of their ad-homs. With Big Tobacco now dumbed down, an ever icreasing number of people see the anti-smoking rhetoric for exactly what it is, a desperate way to justify the unjustifiable.

    Whatever one’s belief, I am sure being lied to for the ”greater good” isn’t popular with too many people, including the children.

  9. It’s absolute nonsense. It’s basically just a repeat of the old Repace/Travis/Klepeis studies that have probably been done close to a hundred times by this point simply to make propaganda points. See my very-close-to-the-truth satire on them at:


    and also see “Outdoor Smoke Exposure” in the Stiletto at:


    They do the same thing in bars with and without smoking and declare the banned bars have “93% less air pollution” than bars with smoking, and play the same “peak measurement” and “hazardous” games with kids in cars. Basically “peak measurements” are absolutely meaningless in terms of health effects since they may last only a fraction of a second. And the “hazardous” rating they try to stick on their measurements only applies for 24 hours a day of exposure every day of the week for the elderly and infants to exercise in. The truer measurements of course would be OSHA’s 8 hour per day safety levels — but of course those wouldn’t agree with the scaremongering so the Antismokers never refer to them.

    It’s all just more lies when you look at it closely.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  10. Ann, it’s the Kessler “difference between being accurate and being truthful” I explored in Brains. You can say something that is accurate but be MEANING to give a completely different impression: so you are actually lying.

    Remember my fancypants $500,000 a year lawyer running for Congress? He stands up before a crowd and says “I give regularly to organized charities and to the homeless and less fortunate I see on the streets.” Everyone cheers, they vote for him, and then a few months later on Dec. 24th he does what he does every year: throws a shiny new penny into the Salvation Army bucket and (from a distance) a grubbier one at a guy sleeping on a vent.

    Was he lying to the crowd?

    I’d say he was… just like the Antis lie.


    • In a court of law you swear “To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” That’s because the court system realizes that you can convey a false impression of reality by leaving out important information. It’s a well known propaganda technique called “card stacking.” If the court catches you doing this while under oath, it’s called “perjury”. And yes, of course, it is a form of lying.

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