We were delighted to interview Michael McFadden this week. Originally we asked about his new book TobakkoNacht – The Antismoking Endgame, to be published on 1 October, but Michael generously ended up sharing thoughts with us about many things. The interview is quite long, but well worth reading to the end.
1. When and why did you first become concerned about the issues you raise in your latest book, and why did you choose to call the book TobakkoNacht?
There are at least four separate issues addressed in TobakkoNacht that I became concerned about in different ways and at different times to different degrees… although they all relate to each other to some extent.
A) The issue of scientific integrity and telling the truth was always important to me. Of course I’ve lied sometimes in my life, but they’ve usually been small lies and with seemingly good reasons behind them – but even so I’d be bothered by them and uncomfortable with them. Seeing people unjustly gain at the expense of other people on the basis of lies always angered me, and it’s something I’ve seen repeatedly with regard to the antismoking campaign. Some of the lies are deliberate, some are just innocent repetitions of lies by people who don’t know any better, and a lot of them are lies that are mixed with bits of truth so that the liar can try to claim they’re not *really* lies. I expose a lot of instances of all three types in both Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains and, I think, more particularly in TobakkoNacht.
B) My concern with what drives human conflict and allows people to feel comfortable making other people suffer or even killing them goes back to my college years and my Peace Studies program. Yes, thermonuclear war is a much more “important” issue than a smoking ban at the local bar, but they’re both based on people being led to believe things that are largely false, and which lead them to feel that some other groups of people are different and it’s OK to hurt them … a dehumanizing of another group. In the Author’s Preface to TobakkoNacht I talk about my total inability for many, many years to understand how ordinary German, Polish, Austrian, or other people could have grown so indifferent or have developed such animosity toward Jews that they allowed the concentration camps and the Holocaust to happen. What the antismoking movement has taught me is how easy it is to manipulate people’s minds and turn them against each other as long as it’s done step by step, just like boiling Al Gore’s frog slowly in warmer and warmer water and as long as it’s done with the justification of protecting the helpless – whether its the workers, the children, the women, or whatever group can be held up as particularly vulnerable and needy. We see both those things at play throughout the development of the modern antismoking movement, starting with the 1975 World Health Organization Conference where the emphasis was placed, for the first time since WW2, on the concept of Passivrauchen, “passive smoking,” and then the slow building of prejudice against and separation of smokers from “normal” people until no tax is too high and no punishment too great in order to condition smokers into proper behavior.
C) Finally, on a superficial and practical level, I first became aware of and concerned about smoking bans and lies as an issue in 1976 when a communal housemate showed up at our West Philadelphia training center with a fistful of leaflets from ASH that were clearly filled with lies and exaggerations that split our community and eventually resulted in the destruction of the training center altogether, but which I didn’t have the background knowledge to be able to fight effectively. That was really when I began researching the issue whenever I could, reading the Surgeon Generals’ Reports, continuing my studies on propaganda analysis and statistics that I’d begun in the graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually using the Internet to learn more than I ever could have simply by tramping around in the halls of the libraries. It was that initial experience in the training center that first really raised my awareness of the importance of the issue and provided me with the motivation to research it, and then the continued pressure of Antismokers toward banning smoking in restaurants and bars provided continued motivation to fight what they were doing, while also showing people the dangers of letting themselves be manipulated.
D) The decision to call the book TobakkoNacht came about from the substance of the dystopian story that serves as the opening to the book, from the strong impression of the importance of the lessons of the Holocaust that had been left with me in my studies in college and graduate school, and an increasing and depressing awareness of how those lessons were being forgotten. I had doubts about using it as a title because of the power of what it was associated with, but as I became more and more aware of how few people under the age of 40 were even aware of having heard of Kristallnacht, much less having any concept of what it meant, I felt the reminder was justified.
2. Who would benefit from reading this book? Would you recommend any prior research or reading, or does it stand alone for someone with no knowledge of the subject? Also, why should non-smokers or even anti-smokers read this book? Some people may have read your earlier book Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains and may feel they already know enough about the subject. Others may feel they should read the earlier book first. How do the books relate to one another?
A) Who would benefit from reading this book? Everyone. Most particularly, however, any smokers, workers, or business owners who have been hurt by antismoking regulations and taxes, any nonsmokers who’ve seen their own lives disrupted or negatively impacted in turn, and basically anyone whose social relationships, jobs, friends, or families have suffered because of the extremes of the antismoking movement.
B) Generally I feel that, for someone new to this area of concern, my first book, Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains, is a better place to start because it provides more of an overall introduction to the problem. However, even though TobakkoNacht has a lot more in the way of detailed information that a lot of people might consider too specialized to want to bother with, the bulk of its pages are written in a way that even people with no background in the area, or in statistics or scientific modeling at all, will be able to follow easily and enjoy while doing so. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to start the book off with what is essentially just a science fiction story set largely in the future.
3. Most people, including smokers and authorities, have been educated to accept many of the claims by the TCI (Tobacco Control Industry). You challenge these claims in your section on ‘Stratistics’ (sic), your newly coined word. I realise that you explain this word in the book but could you give a brief insight here? Do you think that as these TCI claims become increasingly unbelievable the public will lose confidence and that this will ultimately undermine trust in Public Health in general?
One section of the book is titled, in big bold letters, “Stratistics Unbound,” and people who haven’t read it are quick to tell me I’ve made a typo. Nope. It’s not a typo. It’s a very deliberate phrasing of a new word meant to emphasize what we get when people bend and twist statistics to meet a political or strategic purpose rather than simply use statistics as a tool to better understand and illustrate the truth. Hopefully people who used to believe almost anything the “guys in the white hats” (or white robes) said will start to question their statements and their numbers as those statements and numbers become crazier and crazier. Antismokers’ recent concentration on trying to prove the deadliness of thirdhand smoke and wisps of smoke outdoors, and their idiotic claims about smoking bans being good for pubs despite the widespread and indisputable closure of pubs in state after state and country after country in the wake of bans, will both help to wake people up to the idea that maybe some of the other things they’ve had pumped into them through antismoking news stories and TV ads over the years might be false as well.
And yes, in answer to the last part of your question, I addressed the loss of trust in public health very directly in Brains ten years ago because I saw it coming. And indeed we’re seeing it very directly now with the entire mistrust of the medical establishment, its vaccination programs, its drugs, and its warnings about other health problems. Here’s what I said back then (p. 98/99 in Brains):
Why is such mutation of these medical terms a dangerous thing? Obviously the first casualty, in its purest sense, is truth. The public perception of and emotional reaction to these terms is largely based upon their historic meaning. The perceptions and reactions of individual patients is similarly based.
When someone was told they had a heart attack they knew it meant that part of their heart muscle had died, that they themselves had been close to dying, and that another such attack was likely to be imminent if they did not quickly their ways. When someone was told they had cancer, even in the early stages, they knew that they were skating closely with Death on a pond slanting toward an icy plunge. When someone was told they had emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease they knew that it usually meant that within a few short years they would be hooked up permanently to an oxygen bottle and would be lucky not to be dead within a few more years.
These understandings were important in ensuring that individuals who truly were at great risk of imminent death would recognize the necessity for rapid and drastic behavior changes. The average layperson depends on clear and understandable communication with his or her health provider in order to be able to make correct and rational decisions about health care and lifestyle decisions.
To change the definitions without adequately informing and educating the public as to the nature of those changes was the same as simply propagating lies. More than that, it was the equivalent of terrorizing people “for their own good” (at least as their “good” was seen by their doctors….) Inevitably, people will become aware of this duplicity: their faith in the medical profession and in the health advice given to them by their doctors will be tainted beyond recovery.
How many lives will be lost in the future because patients will no longer believe ANY of their doctors’ diagnoses or will re-fuse to heed sound advice in situations of dire medical conditions where following such advice can be vital? There are some individuals who quite seriously should never smoke: those with certain types of peripheral circulatory problems or with a congenitally based emphysema-related anomaly referred to as PIZZ. When such individuals are currently told by their doctors to quit smoking how many of them are now simply ignoring the advice with the attitude “Oh, that’s what doctors always say,” and then going on to suffer truly devastating medical results?
This is not fantasizing. In July of 2002, researchers discovered precisely this phenomenon when they gave a subset of smoking subjects special counseling about a genetic defect that made them more likely to develop cancer. Despite intensive efforts to communicate the special risk to these subjects the advice was almost universally ignored (McBride et al. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 07/02).
How many will slough off more general advice about safe sex, proper use of medications, or the importance of improving one’s diet or losing weight because of a general skepticism developed and encouraged by doctors’ constant emphasis on advice to quit smoking? It is impossible to say for sure, and it’s even quite possible that more lives will be saved by these definition-deceptions than will be lost, but the one fact that we’ll know for sure is that the truth and a patient’s faith in their physician will have been undermined.
Playing with language as a tool for large-scale behavior modification is dangerous. When such play occurs in an area where decisions concerning imminent life and death are made, it goes beyond dangerous: it becomes outright criminal.
4. Moving on to tactics and how we can defend ourselves and fight the TCI: in the book you give a number of helpful analyses and counter-arguments which you encourage us to use. We know your early background was in Peace Studies, which includes conflict resolution, minorities’ rights, and non-violent action, and that you grew up in the 60s alongside the US Civil Rights Movement. If, after reading the book, someone wants to help, what, in a nutshell, could they do? How do you see ordinary smokers defending themselves against their families, their friends, and relentless propaganda from the authorities? Do you have any specific tactical advice for F2C (and other similar groups) who are continuing the fight against our oppression and denormalisation: what’s our role, what’s our way ahead? Can you, in short, give us any hope?
You’ve asked me for tips on “how to fight” – both for people who are new to the fight and for those who’ve been in it for a while, and both on a personal level and a wider political level.
As I say in TobakkoNacht, I wish I had a magic arrow or a silver bullet coated in garlic sauce to offer with a money-back guarantee… but I don’t. TobakkoNacht spends close to sixty pages on the question of “The Endgame,” but basically, honestly, all I can offer is advice — and maybe it’s good and maybe it’s not. It’s the best I have to offer though!
The strongest single piece of advice is to remember that that the Antismokers have untold mountains of hundreds of millions of dollars and pounds to pay themselves with, to hire staff with, to buy TV ads with, and to buy the laws that they want. We in turn have diddlysquat. So the advice is simple: we can’t afford to hit them at their strong points: we need to constantly seek out their weaknesses because it’s only at those weaknesses that we can really win at this point.
Their greatest weakness is in their lies, the more outrageous the better for us — because truly outrageous lies are easier to expose in quick and simple ways, and it’s easier to convince people who’d earlier believed them without much thought that actually they ARE lies. And when people realize how they’ve been played for fools with those lies, they’ll get angry and they’ll fight back. And it’s that anger and that willingness to fight that we need.
So pick out the craziest and weakest of their lies: the thirdhand smokes, the outdoor death from a smoker a hundred feet away, childhood asthma doubling or tripling while exposure to smoke has gone down by more than half, smoking bans being good for pubs while we can see that their numbers are being decimated twice over, the most advanced ventilation and air-filtration systems being helpless against wisps of smoke from a few leaves while they easily handle deadly pathogens in hospitals and clouds of thick cooking smoke from restaurant kitchens. Anyone can be fooled temporarily by slick and expensively produced advertising and propaganda sound bites, especially when it’s all wrapped up with emotional appeals and pictures of lovable little children, but most people can see beyond those sound bites and pictures if the lies are transparent enough.
We need to pick out the most transparent lies, and hit at them, over and over again, in the simplest terms possible. I have a booklet out there (nicknamed “The Stiletto”) that’s designed to hit some of those lies and designed to get people angry without making them sit down to read a 500-page book. Print it out, bind it the way it’s suggested so it looks impressive, and get it into people’s hands. I strongly believe it’s potentially one of our most effective weapons.
If you find someone out there sympathetic to us, GET THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS — and start sending them a few selected things once in a while, particularly if you can remember what they were concerned about. And then get them to sign up for a newsletter or visit one of our websites and join one of our groups. Point them to news discussions or facebook pages where they can dive in and use some of what they’ve learned and meanwhile learn more from seeing what the rest of us write. If they’re into the issue strongly enough and you’ve got an extra copy of Brains, TobakkoNacht, or whatever your favorite Free Choice book is, lend it to them and talk about it with them.
The “Stiletto” is good for those sympathetic to us but it’s also great for family, friends, and outright Antis who are hostile: instead of getting all hot ‘n’ bothered arguing with them, just hand them a copy and say, “OK, Look, I know you think I’m wrong, but I can’t find where this book is lying. Maybe you can see where they’re fooling me: can you take two minutes just to point out where they’re taking me for a ride here?”
If you approach it right, they’ll be happy to take up the challenge because they *know* that they’re right and it’ll be easy to expose the “lies” in the booklet, right? }:> (That’s a devilish grin btw) So give it to them and then relax and have a smoke. Save an extra one because they might need one when they’re done reading.
5. Do you regard yourself mainly as a smokers’ rights campaigner, or as a citizen concerned equally about denormalisation and the abuse of science, language, democracy, etc?
Primarily a freedom and peace campaigner: propaganda and mechanisms that divide people and turn them against each other are bad things, particularly when they are based on lies, and the antismoking movement has become a prime example of that. If they had stuck simply with teaching people about the harms of smoking I’d never have gotten involved with the whole thing and might still be doing hippie-peacenik nonviolence organizing. An odd aside here is that I like to point out that one of the reasons I understand the Antismokers so well is that I sort of used to BE one: not an AntiSMOKER per se, but an AntiDRIVER. I was a bicycle activist back in the 1970s and felt quite fine about developing, advocating, and using many of the methods that I later recognized to be harmful when I saw them being used by antismoking campaigners. Taxing gasoline at $10/gallon, Making driving difficult by setting up random “play streets,” “car-free roads,” “parking-free zones,” “child-safe speed-limits,” attacking “Big Auto,” twisting the truth in the service of the “greater good”? All tools in my activist bag back then, and I felt perfectly justified in using them. Nowadays I know better: I’m not God, and no one else is either: we all have the right to be free to live our own lives and, while *some* reasonable limits need to be set in cases of clear-cut and irrefutable harm to others, the vague arguments of minute levels of theoretical statistical harm are a different story – the importance of our freedom and social structure are too overwhelming to be fooled around with lightly by academicians and social engineers.
6. You mention that, as a young child, you were somewhat anti-smoking. When and why did you start smoking?
I tried smoking out of curiosity as a mid-teen and loved it almost straight away! I believe that most smokers, absent the propaganda and the recognition of and concerns about health effects, generally do love smoking. Look back through literature over the years prior to the last half century and see how smokers describe their feelings about smoking: overall far more positive than negative – very different than what you’ll hear today because today smokers know that if they don’t express the “proper” feelings about their habit they’ll be faced with a conflict… so far better to simply put on the sorry face, indulge in some quick professions of self-hate, and know that your inquisitor will be satisfied and move on to bother someone else.
7. Finally, we at F2C are kind of cat lovers, and we apologise for asking about your private life. In Brains you wrote you shared your house with a noisy cat. In TobakkoNacht you now describe your cat as psychotic. Is it the same cat? Or is it a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat, which can be there/not there, noisy/quiet, psychotic/non-psychotic?
Two cats. Noisy one passed away a few years ago. Wonderful lap-cat Burmese with a VERY loud meow. New one is a regular tabby cat raised from a kitten by my brother. He became psychotic at a young age after chewing on Christmas Tree electric lights and somehow escaping alive after getting a live wire caught between his teeth for several seconds. The poor kitty did a remarkable impression of Fred Astaire on meth before breaking free. Ever since then he has been somewhat psychotic and scared of his own shadow any time he has to move more than a few feet from wherever he has established as a safe, non-shocking, place.
Michael, thank you very much indeed for spending so much time answering our questions, and every good wish for your new book.
Thank you – you are more than welcome.