The Health Gestapo – “Second Hand Smoke Causes Meningitis in Children”

Today an article appeared on the BBC news site about the dangers of second hand smoke.

What amazed me was the quote from Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH):

 “There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke and children are at risk of a range of diseases such as asthma, ear infections, and potentially fatal meningitis as a result of breathing in second-hand smoke in the home or car.”

She seems to be implying that breathing in second hand smoke causes meningitis!

The absurdity of this is clear when you understand that there are two types of meningitis, one caused by bacteria and the other by a virus. Unless the laws of physics and biology have been re-written overnight, it is no more possible for smoke to transform into bacteria than it is for lead to turn into gold.

At first I thought this might be simply one of those correlation/causation fallacies that the health Nazis are so fond of. I.e. somebody had found that people breathing in second hand smoke had higher rates of meningitis than those who don’t and assumed a causal link.  This is the same line of reasoning that would observe that more smokers travel on buses than non smokers and therefore smoking causes bus travel!

(The reality of course being that smoking is more common in the poorer sections of society and they are more likely to have to use the bus, because its cheaper than owning a car. The correlation is caused by another hidden factor, poverty)

Looking at the report there does appear to be an increased chance of contracting meningitis in a household that contains smokers, p88+

However, all of the studies quoted (apart from 1, which showed no difference) pre-date the following study funded by the Meningitis Research Foundation and published in 2006 titled:

Is it exposure to cigarette smoke or to smokers which increases the risk of meningococcal disease in teenagers?

It turns out that for smokers the probability of contracting meningitis is higher. Not because smoking causes meningitis but because smokers have higher carriage rates for the bacteria that cause meningitis than non smokers. (Now this could be because of smoking, or it could be because of the other lifestyle factors that smokers tend to have that non smokers don’t, including increased poverty, worse housing conditions, worse diet, increased levels of recreational drug use, more time huddled together in high physical contact small groups, etc, etc, etc.)

So what did this study in 2006 actually show about the dangers of getting meningitis from second hand smoke:

“Contact with smokers is associated with increased risk of MD in adolescents. This is more likely to be due to higher carriage rates in smokers than to exposure to smoke

In epidemiological studies that assess risk from passive smoking, exposure to smoke should be differentiated where possible from contact with smokers.

So the truth is not that exposure to second hand smoke causes meningitis in children.

The truth is that, unsurprisingly, contact with people who are carrying the meningitis bacteria increases the probability of contracting meningitis!

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  • Libertarian View-Wondering if you could offer some thoughts on this. I m a smoker myself of rollie. Now I m a Libertarian, a political atheist if you like. A libertarians view is that everyone has a right to their life without interference from others, as long as they do not cause harm to others in the process. This smoking debate around children is one I m trying to figure out. I have a right to smoke…I don’t have kids by the way, however, if I did and I decided to smoke in the same room as my 3 year old or the car, in away am I not harming the child?  How does a Libertarian deal with this dilemma? Of course I wouldn’t smoke in front of the child, and don’t  when I m in the company of my nephews. However, people who do smoke in an enclosed space with their kids are potentially causing harm to their child, without the child having a choice. Does this violate the Libertarian ideal, that everyone has a right to their life as long as you do not cause harm to another? Whats your thoughts? I still do not think the state should be involved, but curious on some views on this issue.

    • Its a very interesting question. From a libertarian perspective there are several issues to consider. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that inhaling small amounts of second hand smoke does cause  physical damage. (Not everyone will agree on that point)

      Firstly take the simpler case of smoking in front of another adult. This boils down to property rights. If you are smoking on your own property and the other adult is free to leave then you are doing nothing wrong. If they stay and inhale your smoke they do so voluntarily. If you smoke on someone else’s property and they ask you to stop then if you continue you are breaching their property rights and you are doing something wrong.

      Now consider the case of older children. If the child is old enough to understand the risks of second hand smoke and capable of leaving the room, then the situation is the same as for an adult.

      Finally the case of a baby, or young child. Libertarians (at least Rothbardians) consider that children are effectively held in trust by the parents until they reach the age (more strictly the capability) to claim self ownership. Part of the trustee relationship is an obligation to do no active harm to the child. So if smoking caused instant physical damage then you should not do so in front of a child in your care. (Children in other people’s care are the responsibility of their carer. If they chose to leave them in your presence when you smoke, you do nothing wrong, they do.)

      It is important to make the assumption that inhaling small amounts of second hand smoke causes physical damage in this argument because if it doesn’t then the situation is similar to that of feeding a child in your care junk food. If you do this all the time and make the child physically ill as a result then that is clearly wrong, but if you feed them it now and again and it causes no harm then you don’t.

      • Cheers man. Some good points, especially about when a “child” reaches the age to know the dangers of their own accord, and a good metaphor about small amounts of junk food and smoke. These anti-smoking Nazis portray it as a wide scale problem…I have not seen too many people smoking with windows down in the car. Now they are saying well its still damaging even if the windows are down. There is no limit to how far they will go. I see people everyday not using their indicators at roundabouts, road turnings etc ( a pet hate), it could be argued bad driving habits are more dangerous than smoking in a car with windows down…you could almost reason every action is potentially life threatening…who knows where these do-gooders will end their interfering. 

    • Here’s the other problem with assuming that risking our own health with known cancer causing substances doesn’t “hurt” other people – your health care will likely be paid for by the state or federal government and if not by them, then by insurance premiums, which go up when people in the group of insureds have high health care costs – your lung cancer will cost me money and my lung cancer (even though I stopped smoking 18 years ago) will cost you money. Our economic lives are inextricably intertwined. That doesn’t mean I get to tell you to stop smoking (though I’d advise you to, of course) but let’s not kid ourselves about the fact that our poor health costs the healthy money. And let’s not forget that we all get sick enough, at some point, to die.

      • In a free market economy that is not true. Your insurance premiums would be set by the risks associated with your lifestyle. If those who smoke as a group have higher lifetime healthcare costs (which is not certain as many die before the high cost of old age arrives) then they would pay for that in higher premiums. There is no reason why premiums for those with different lifestyles would be increased.

        In a socialist medical system, like the NHS we have here in the United Kingdom, then what you say is true. It is equally true that anyone who does not eat an optimal diet, exercise regularly, minimize stress with yoga, drink 8 glasses of water a day, etc, increases the costs to everyone else. This leads to the bizarre situation of having the state trying to control its medical costs by telling everyone how to live their life, including even what kind of shoes to wear

  • One more point…The people that would smoke in the car with their kids, and feed them junk food are a great majority of the time, the same people who would not be able to have a child without the support of the State. I see lots of young girls, late teens, early twenties who have gotten pregnant on a whim, or by accident. The incentive not to get pregnant is not there…as they have seen their friend “Stacey” who got pregnant, and ended up with a house given to her, a DVD player, a toaster,a TV and a bed bought for her and a nice lump of cash every week, from the private sector. The State has caused the moral hazard of people not taking appropriate pre-cautions not to get pregnant. In the local town, I see loads of mothers on benefits with a pram, smoking, and feeding junk crap to their kids. The parents and couples who decide after lots of planning to have a child, do so for the ” right reasons”…and much more unlikely to smoke and feed the child junk food. 

    • “who have gotten pregnant on a whim”?? Really?? Had many young women tell you that they sought out sex “on a whim” so that they could get pregnant “on a whim”?

      • It is certainly true in the UK, that many young single women see getting pregnant as an alternative lifestyle choice to working. The welfare system in many cases provides them with a higher standard of living than low skilled work:

      • Absolutely. Teenagers and girls in their early twenties are having sex on a whim, this is bore out by the stats, that teenagers are getting pregnant at higher rates than ever. Check the ONS. And if they are not having sex on a whim then they are taking less precautions than ever before.

        A friend of the family works high up in Social Housing Executive in my area. When I see him I quiz him on the welfare system and his job, to get an insiders point of view so to speak. His words are that “it is rampant with fraud” Perhaps whim is the wrong word…they engage in sex and do not take suitable precautions and end up pregnant. The consequences of having a child are not thought out, and the attitude is well, someone else will pay for it. If these benefits were not dished out so readily, like a free house, TV, bedding, DVD players, more precautions would be taken. Think about two friends…”Laura” and “Stacey”…Stacey gets pregnant at 18…the state does not provide all these benefits like a free house. Laura sees that Stacey is stuck living with her parents with a child, life consumed by the child,unable to go out and socialise with her friends. All of a sudden that life does not look so good. As a consequence, Laura insists that condoms or birth control are used with any sexual partner she may have. The person who works on the social housing also told me that a favourite is to move the boyfriend in once they get the house, even though he will be working. To cut down fraud, they now give vouchers for beds rather than cash, to quote a conversation between two people on the swindle, “the cunts have caught onto that, you will not cash, just get the voucher and we’ll sell it” I have no reason to believe this friend of the family is lying. He told me this off the record, why would he lie?

        Its as simple as this, I do not expect anyone to pay for me if I have a child. Why should anyone be forced to pay for someone else to have a child? And I m not puritan…I have done my fair share of promiscuous behaviour when traveling around…I m all up for people exploring their sexual nature, however, I have not got anyone pregnant, and if I did, I would not expect someone else to pay for that child. 

  • Ger

    Nowadays claims to being rational that are based on operating an objective view of reality have been much maligned by
    serious critique. The first step towards true rationalism is to
    first of all recognise yourself within society and therefore consequently
    influenced by it. The second step requires identifying the biases in your life and the version of reality whereto they guide you. Your hyperbolic slur “health Nazis” is clearly at odds with your  Ayn Rand quotation which you use to justify your apparent objective of being ‘rational’. You sir are anything but.

    • Your own bias for political correctness in language use has led you astray. The logical validity of an argument or the truth of the facts used to support it are not made any less rational by using terms that you choose to define as hyperbolic slurs.

      The term “Health Nazi” is widely used to describe the group of people who, in a totalitarian style without regard to the individual rights of others, attempt to force their views on healthy living on others: 

      • Ger

        Interesting. Your defensive reply immediately reveals more bias. You jump to the conclusion that my statement here is based on a penchant towards political correctness and you classify me accordingly. However the purpose of my comment was to highlight you’re own lack of a commitment to rationalism. Nobody with an ounce of knowledge about history can respectfully associate the actions of some aimed towards increasing regulation based on  health concerns to the totalitarian racist regime of the Nazis which justified and  enacted the deliberate extermination of millions of Jews and other racial minorities.

        Also such an emotive statement suggests the presence of vitriol which has an obvious capacity to cloud judgement.

        The further fact that you justify your use of it based on the precedence set by others indicates the presence of a mind whose thoughts and articulations have been preformed by others.

        My original point remains intact – you sir are far from rational

        • Ger

          Furthermore the use of the term reveals your objective (perhaps even unbeknownst to yourself) is far from the uncovering of an objective reality.  The term is not used because it is an apt description. Instead it is utilized to provoke a response in your audience that is based on negative emotions and thus rise them to support your anti-regulatory cause.  Thus it constitutes a political act.

          Also it obviously a slur despite your above claim to the contrary, I
          mean what else could it be, who enjoys being referred to as a Nazi
          these days apart from those in the extreme.

          • The discovery of objective reality requires the analysis of the structure of arguments and the truth of the premises they rest on. The emotional content of the labels used to describe the concepts are unimportant.

            The communication of objective reality to a world containing many unthinking sheeple who lack the capacity to reason for themselves is different. Rhetorical skills and emotional language can often make people accept things (true or false) that they cannot analyse for themselves. Which was my point here:

            When you are trying to promote rational views against irrational ones, it would be stupid to refrain from using the same effective tools that your irrational opponents use so effectively. 

          • Ger

            Firstly glad you recognise the determinants of language
            which we must absorb in order to communicate. In that you must surely recognise
            how Ayn Rand’s statement, which I presume you use to symbolise the objectives
            of your blog, is problematic. What is rational? Is this based on enlightenment notions
            of reason? The mere fact that we are in society – you’re acceptance of the determinant
            force of language imples you already recognise this – means that the case for enlightenment
            rationality is weakened by other unconscious forces. Thus bias is liable to be
            everywhere but yet how shall we recognise it?

            My comments concerning you not being a rational man should
            not be taken as an ad hominem attack, although I can see how
            they could be misconstrued in this way. I was merely referring back to your use
            of the Rand quotation. You say that I am not rational: to me that is not the
            worst of insults. Although I believe in a form of rationality based on critical
            realism or relationalism I do not believe in the type of rationality advocated
            by positivists and the enlightenment. Everything we interpret or act upon is
            subject to various forms of bias, whether that be the restrictions of language
            or ideology or even fear.

            Now these comments about rationality are
            important. If you think that you are the being who sees the world for what it
            is then you are gravely mistaken. You justify your use of the term ‘Health
            Nazis’ as it being an appropriate representation of your views on
            totalitarianism – and in that you did not use it as a provocative statement or
            because you were driven to use it by your own vitriol. Although you may very
            well believe that I doubt that that is really the case. Everybody justifies
            their actions you know. Regardless of the knowledge available, people will
            claim some rational reason as to why they did what they did. We are expected to
            do this in this world; from the moments our parents and educators demand from us
            explanations for our actions, we have been trained in this manner to
            legitimatise our actions; c.f., ‘On Justification: Economies of worth’ by
            Boltanski and Thevenot.

            Although you attempt to use the discourses of
            justification and rationality to legitimatise your use of the term ‘health Nazis’
            it remains at best a flimsy justification and your use of it still reeks of

            Also my comments are hardly a diatribe.

          • Interesting points, I agree with a lot of what you say about inherent bias and post facto justification.

            What I mean by rational is simply:

            1. Without errors in the logic of an argument. (The rules of logic are not subjective)

            2. Without demonstrable factual errors (or unsubstantiated claims) in the premises on which the argument is built.

            You could argue that these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for rationality, but I only attack arguments that clearly fall short on one or both of these criteria.

        • You illustrate your own argument about bias and lack of rationality, in yourself.

          I do not justify my use of the label “Health Nazi” based on the precedence set by others, I simply illustrate that the term is in wide use as a label to describe people of a particular totalitarian viewpoint.

          Every word that you use in your diatribe is part of the English language, a system of communication only possible because inherently meaningless black squiggles have become universally accepted as labels for concepts. Unless you invent every word you say (and nobody can understand you) you are justifying your use of any English word based on the “precedence set by others indicating the presence of a mind whose thoughts and articulations are preformed by others.”

          Many terms are capable of evoking an emotional response, but the emotional response is created by the beliefs and viewpoints of the person hearing them, not the words intrinsically.

          A child who was beaten by his father will have a very different emotional response to the word “Father” than will a child from a loving home.

          For you the term Nazi evokes a “totalitarian racist regime of the Nazis which justified and  enacted the deliberate extermination of millions of Jews and other racial minorities”.

          For me it evokes an ideology of totalitarian control over people, the sacrifice of individual liberty for the benefit of the state. The genocides enacted by the Nazis were the consequence of this belief system, they were not the belief system itself.

          The power of reason and rationality is that it allows us to assess the quality of an argument, irrespective of the rhetoric used to make it. Which is why in philosophical argument it is important to agree definitions of terms.

          Your focus on a personal dislike of the labels used and an ad hominem attack on the person using them, has no bearing on the soundness of the argument made and indicates a shallowness of thinking.

  • Jay Paraki

    There is a dangerous and often fatal type of meningitis – post-operative meningitis. This occurs in patients who have undergone craniotomy for any diagnosis (brain tumour, aneursysm,etc) and have developed complications in the post-operative period. The complication leads to bacterial meningitis and often occurs late after discharge from hospital.

  • Ashireen

    DUH BRAIN, its the breakdown of the natural defences in the nose and throat caused by smoke, which allows NATURALLY PRESENT bacteria to infect the blood and onto the meninges in the brain, this causes septic infection in the blood circulatory system and so you can lose limbs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!