Friday, 15 April 2011

My article on the Free Society: Thirdhand Smoke

Simon Clark has been kind enough to post two of my articles on The Free Society website. Click here to view the article on his site (and if you read it here, please at least click the link to give him the traffic) but i've included it here too so that people can comment if they want to.

According to a BBC report last year, thirdhand smoke is the “lingering residue from tobacco smoke which clings to upholstery, clothing and the skin releases”. Warning signs, say researchers, is the smell that lingers on a smoker’s clothing or in an area where someone has been smoking.

The concept came to public attention in 2009 courtesy of Dr Jonathan Winickoff, who also coined the term. Winickoff took his discovery to the media not on the basis of a study but a survey. Asked if they believed that “Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children”, 65 per cent of non-smokers said “yes”. And so a new health threat was born.

While the perceived threat of secondhand smoke allowed legislators to ban smoking in enclosed public places, the alleged dangers of thirdhand smoke takes the war on tobacco one step further. According to Winickoff, smokers themselves are “contaminated”. They “actually emit toxins” he says.

How long will it be before smokers are excluded from certain professions, teaching or other forms of childcare, for example? Or perhaps they will be banned from hospitals in case they “contaminate” nurses and other patients.

Thirdhand smoke plays on the standard antismoking cry to “think of the children” (which tobacco control conveniently ignored when they sent smokers home from pubs to smoke around their families instead). Winickoff, for example, claimed that infants spend much more time closer to surfaces, like the floor, and thus ingest more of the toxic brew from tobacco smoke.

The big discrepancy though is that no study exists that demonstrates any harm from this tobacco residue, either in children or adults. It is all based on suppositions that are based on US Surgeon General Richard Carmona’s warnings to non-smokers that “there is no safe level of tobacco smoke” and even to “stay away from smokers”. The suggestion that tobacco smoke is dangerous in any dosage defies the basic knowledge of toxicology: “The dose makes the poison”.

Winickoff built on a 2004 study by Georg Matt that claimed that nicotine levels in the dust of children’s bedrooms in homes where parents commonly smoked indoors averaged about 40 micrograms per cubic metre. Worrying over such levels is akin to worrying that a child will get caffeine poisoning from a single Kit-Kat. At the same time it should be noted that while nicotine levels in the dust of children’s bedrooms may indicate that someone has been smoking, nicotine itself is harmless – addictive, perhaps, but harmless.

While it is true that miniscule smoke particles do exist and can cling to surfaces, the issue is not whether they exist but in what quantities. In his book Dissecting Anti-Smokers’ Brains, Michael McFadden wrote of secondhand smoke:

Most of these chemicals can only be found in quantities measured in nanograms, picograms and femtograms. Many cannot even be detected in these amounts: their presence is simply theorized rather than measured. To bring those quantities into a real world perspective, take a saltshaker and shake out a few grains of salt. A single grain of that salt will weigh in the ballpark of 100 million picograms!

For context, a nanogram is one billionth of a gram, a pictogram is a trillionth of a gram, and a femtogram is written as 0.000,000,000,000,001 grams.

The residue from secondhand smoke – what some people now call thirdhand smoke – is so miniscule it is absurd that it should cause anyone serious concern. Quite simply, if a femtogram of tobacco smoke residue is enough to damage our health, a single cigarette should be all but fatal.

Of course we have long crossed the line of absurdity when it comes to tobacco control. Far from objectively researching the issue, researchers now openly admit that their work is aimed at getting smokers to quit or promoting smoking bans. even in private homes.

Talking to Scientific American about his survey, Winickoff said: “This study points to the need for every smoker to try to quit.” He also argues that “Emphasizing that thirdhand smoke harms the health of children may be an important element in encouraging home smoking bans … Your nose isn’t lying. The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ‘Get away.’”

We can apply this logic to anything whose smell we don’t like. If you don’t like the smell of deep-fried fish and chips does that mean you should run away from it? If science is telling us to fear smell, what hope do we have?

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