In a Facebook video posted last year, a guy named Joey Rocha announced from his rather messy living room that tobacco smoke doesn’t cause cancer. “Tobacco is good for you,” he implores as a baby wriggles in a highchair behind him. “It may be counter to anything you’ve heard before, but just like everything—they lie.”
In the three-minute video, which has currently clocked less than 1,000 views, Rocha claims that nicotine is performance-enhancing and that cigarette filters are the true carcinogens. It’s an outlandish claim, and one that he backs with fascinatingly thin evidence, but for Joey—as an avid flat-earth vlogger—it’s all very on-brand. Because he’s part of a subset of conspiracy theorists who claim tobacco's negative health effects are overstated, and potentially even fictional.
Books, articles, blogs, and even a 2009 conference reflect how the movement is surprisingly well-organised. Public figures, such as Mcafee antivirus software founder John Mcafee and Brexit demagogue Nigel Farage have also publicly expressed their doubts over tobacco’s link to disease. The community also frequently points to Ian Dunbar, a British doctor who’s published two books and hosted several YouTube videos claiming that “smoking should be permitted anywhere, but totalitarian cultural prejudice—a statement of mind akin to racism—forbids it.”
Smoking tobacco has been broadly recognised as dangerous since 1950, when British epidemiologist Richard Doll published the first conclusive study linking smoking to lung cancer. Since then, there have been multiple studies finding again and again that human lungs simply haven't evolved for regular smoke inhalation. And while there have always been naysayers, they’ve typically been on behalf of the tobacco industry, and not ordinary people with nothing to gain like Joey Rocha.
The theory espoused by people like Joey is more nuanced than simply “tobacco is good.” Instead, the group generally claims that tobacco’s dangers are over-magnified, while its medicinal benefits are under-represented—and what’s interesting is the argument isn’t totally without merit.
In 2003, a comprehensive study from California found that the link between second-hand smoke and disease was weaker than initially believed. Further studies have also suggested that tobacco and its alkaloid nicotine could offer potential benefits, such as a 2015 meta-analysis that found a slightly reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease in smokers.
It’s important to note, however, that such studies don’t find tobacco safe, and that slight health benefits don’t outweigh the costs. But according to Richard White, the 32-year-old author of Smoke Screens: The Truth Behind Tobacco, such findings illuminate the issue's politicisation. “[This] isn’t a conspiracy theory,” he wrote to VICE via Facebook messenger. “It doesn’t take a lot of pulling of the thread to see there’s a lot of political intervention here.”
In the world of conspiracy theories Richard cuts an unusual figure. He’s calm and seemingly impartial, reinforcing his claims with papers and studies. But on the other hand he’s not a scientist, but an ordinary guy working in marketing. He says he decided to write the book after compiling research following his grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. And surprisingly he’s quit smoking since the book’s publication. But while Richard distances himself from the label of conspiracist—marketing himself not as a pro-smoker, but as “someone motivated by truth”—he argues that not all questions have been answered.
“[The] word “cause” is very definite,” he says. “I think you can see effects of smoking. You recognise a smoker’s cough … There are indicators, but that doesn't necessarily mean it causes disease.”
Richard claims that doctors exhibit detection bias when treating smokers and that rats and mice with genetic predispositions to cancer are used to produce desired results. As to why this allegedly happens, Richard argues that anti-smoking and pharmaceutical lobby groups influence the scientific community.
“What’s important to me is that, yes, I’m interested in the truth, but there needs to be integrity there. We need to be able to trust science. We need to trust funding sources. We need to have transparency,” Richard asserts.
Of course, Richard’s scepticism receives nothing but exasperation from medical practitioners, such as Dr Stephen Hecht. “Cigarettes fit all the criteria that we have for something causing disease,” Stephen tells VICE over the phone. “Cigarettes have multiple cancer-causing agents in their smoke. And then, we know that from many, many studies that these agents cause mutations in DNA that are seen in genes that we know are involved in cancer.”
Stephen is the Wallin Land Grant Professor of Cancer Prevention at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. He explains that although cancer may only occur in 20 percent of smokers, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that smokers are 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer. Furthermore he argues that although some studies may find conflicting data, it doesn’t mean they disprove everything.
“[The effects are] overwhelmingly negative,” he argues. “It’s not even close. Don’t fall for that. It’s absolutely overwhelmingly negative.”
Negative but not absolutely, definitively fatal—and that lack of certainty is really at the heart of the whole movement. With such graphic and emotive anti-smoking rhetoric used to justify pricing and regulations, every smoker who doesn’t die creates a bit of doubt. And this is what we heard over and over from people who share and comment conspiratorial pro-smoking videos.
“I think that tobacco itself is not harmful… but I also know that tobacco companies put some ingredients [in] to cause addiction,” says Olga Glišić, a 55-year-old Serbian woman who has smoked for 38 years.
Olga’s conclusion, she explains, comes from simple experience. Olga, along with her community of friends and family, all smoke. Yet, none of them are sick. Even her son is completely healthy, despite Olga smoking during his time in utero. This experience lends itself to doubting the experts. Also in an off-topic statement Olga mentions her reluctance to be around anti-smokers because of how they make her feel: “I think that non-smokers are aggressive, and I don't need, in my age, someone to teach me what's right or wrong.”
This notion that personal experience and emotion trump expert advice seems integral to the pro-smoking community, as it is for so many other conspiracy groups. Indeed, in this post-truth era in which everything is a matter of opinion, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find a demographic committed to “debunking” the toxicity of smoking. Which is a tragedy, because just like with climate change, immigration, and vaccination, there are millions of lives at stake.
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