Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Thirdhand Smoke: The Science Doesn't Matter; Look Out for Bans on Smokers in Childcare

The tobacco control movement's warnings to the public about the dangers of thirdhand smoke highlight once again that science is no longer driving the movement. Tobacco control practitioners are warning parents that even if they smoke outside the home, leaving a coat hanging on a door is going to expose their children to toxins and harm them due to offgassing of vapors from particulate matter that has settled on the coat during smoking. Yet there is no evidence that such very low levels of exposure to tobacco smoke residue constituents is harmful.

Several months ago, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) called on measures to protect children from exposure to smokers - not merely from exposure to tobacco smoke - based on a study which purportedly showed that the breathe of smokers was toxic to children. But my analysis revealed that there was a fatal flaw in the study which invalidates the conclusion: it is highly likely that some smokers who claimed only to smoke outside the home actually do smoke in the home, at least on occasion. This would have completely explained the study result: that levels of smoke in homes with smokers who claim to only smoke outdoors are intermediate between levels in a smoke-free home and levels in a home with smokers who admit smoking inside the home.

The misinterpretation and misuse of these studies by anti-smoking groups and advocates endangers smokers because it will likely lead to efforts to bar smokers from the workplace and to prevent smokers from being around children, both of which would be tragic mistakes. If the Pediatrics study authors are correct and smokers are toxic to children even when not smoking, then this science can be used to justify measures to ban smokers from children's presence.

For example, if thirdhand smoke is toxic to children, then shouldn't child care workers be required to be nonsmokers? Shouldn't there be laws requiring that early childhood education teachers and staff be nonsmokers?

It would be a tragedy if "facts" like this were used to enact such measures when the truth is that the current science demonstrates no such harm.

If I thought that 2009 was going to be a year in which the anti-smoking movement would come back to its senses, the early returns suggest I was wrong. The movement seems even more dismissive of the science than it was in 2008.

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