It appears that the anti-smoking movement's widespread use of inaccurate scientific claims to promote smoking bans has spread to policy makers. In her efforts to promote a ban on smoking in cars with children, California state Senator Deborah Ortiz claimed that a child in a car with a smoker for one hour is effectively smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes.
According to an article on the San Jose Mercury News web site: "Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, said the Koretz bill was an attempt to 'protect the health of children who cannot protect themselves. We all know that secondhand smoke is hazardous,' she said, 'particularly for young children whose lungs are still developing. Children are effectively smoking a pack and a half a day for every hour they are exposed to smoke in a car.'"
The bill, which would prohibit smoking in any car with a child young enough to require a child safety seat (ages 6 and under or under 60 pounds), passed the Senate on a 23-14 vote and now moves to the state Assembly.
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While I oppose this legislation for reasons unrelated to the degree of risk posed by secondhand smoke, I think it is essential that public policy makers accurately present risk information to the public. While secondhand smoke exposure in a car may pose an increased risk for a child to develop upper respiratory infections, middle ear infections, and asthma, it is hardly the case that an hour of exposure is equivalent to that child actively smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes.
There are a number of reasons why this claim is inaccurate, but to start with, the level of secondhand smoke in the car would have to be 8 times higher than the level in the smokiest bar for a one-hour exposure to yield the equivalent exposure as 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes to even the most heavily concentrated component of secondhand smoke compared to mainstream smoke: N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA).
While the NDMA exposure, under such conditions, would be equivalent to that from actively smoking 1 1/2 pack of cigarettes, the exposure to all the other chemicals in tobacco smoke would be far less. Thus, it would not be "effectively" the same as smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes. To be accurate, one would have to clarify such a claim by stating that it refers specifically to one or two constituents of tobacco smoke.
More importantly, the exposure levels in cars vary widely and are highly dependent upon whether the windows are open or not. So even if the NDMA exposure levels are correct, in order to be accurate, one would have to clarify such a claim by stating that it refers specifically to driving with the windows closed. It is not sound scientifically to claim that anyone in a car for one hour under any conditions would have this exposure.
Is it just me, or does it not truly seem that nowadays, you can basically say anything you want about the hazards of secondhand smoke? You can claim that it will cause atherosclerosis in 30 minutes, that it will cause fatal arrhythmias, that just a brief exposure will set the cancer process in motion, that it contains asbestos, that it contains plutonium, and that one hour of exposure is equivalent to smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes per day.
While Judge Kessler rejected the idea of having independent monitors to conduct surveillance on the activities of the tobacco companies to make sure that their actions were in line, I think that such a remedy may be required to ensure that anti-smoking groups do not deceive the public.
Back in the old days, we had to back up and support our scientific claims. It must be fun to be an anti-smoking practitioner today. You can basically say anything you want and you don't have to justify it or back it up. I think I entered the anti-smoking movement 20 years too early.
(Thanks to Just the Facts for the tip).