In a press release issued last week, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) claimed that thirdhand smoke - vapor released from cigarette smoke residue deposited during smoking but occurring after smoking has ceased - is as harmful as active smoking.
According to the ASH's statement: "Interestingly, another very recent study shows that nicotine exhaled into the air is converted by other common indoor air pollutants into cancer-causing chemicals which can linger on clothing, furniture, draperies, etc. -- a new risk being termed "thirdhand smoke" (www.pr-inside.com/rd-hand-smoke-study-has-legal-r1713633.htm). The risk could be comparable to that of smoking."
The Rest of the Story
Action on Smoking and Health's claim that thirdhand smoke is as dangerous as active smoking is a hysterical one, and it is unsupported by any scientific evidence.
But the problem is not simply that the claim is false. By claiming that thirdhand smoke is as dangerous as active smoking, ASH is also asserting that active smoking is no worse than minute exposure to the carcinogens present in thirdhand smoke. This statement completely undermines the public's appreciation of the hazards of active smoking. By equating the risks of active smoking to those of being in a room long after a smoker has been smoking, ASH is essentially telling smokers that the risks of their smoking have been greatly exaggerated.
Worse yet, ASH is destroying the scientific credibility of the anti-smoking movement and putting the movement at risk of losing the public's trust. The public is eventually going to view the anti-smoking groups as fanatics who have lost touch with reality and they are going to start rejecting everything that the anti-smoking movement claims - even those claims which are demonstrably true and important for the public to understand.
The anti-smoking groups are thus falling into the same trap that the public health groups fell into when spreading widespread hysteria about the swine flu pandemic. It's not that the pandemic is not a serious one (it has killed 12,000 people in the United States). It's that the hysteria spread by health authorities was so exaggerated that when the pandemic turned out not to be nearly as bad as predicted, the public lost confidence in the health authorities and rejected even the well-supported advice that swine flu is a serious problem and that everyone at risk should be vaccinated.
Vaccination rates for the swine flu are at unacceptably low levels specifically because the public lost confidence in the credibility of the health authorities. And those authorities lost their credibility specifically because they engaged in widespread, hysterical, over-exaggeration of the likely risks of the swine flu pandemic.
By going beyond the solid scientific evidence and by engaging in hysteria, the health authorities ended up making the pandemic worse than it would have been, because far fewer people were vaccinated than should have been. Had the health authorities simply spoken honestly about the very real and serious risks of swine flu, then people would not have experienced a disconnect between the health warnings and reality, and they would have continued to take the health groups' advice seriously.
I fear this is exactly what is going to happen with the anti-smoking movement. By engaging in hysterical claims that go far beyond the scientific evidence, the anti-smoking groups are going to lose the public's confidence. And when that happens, the public will stop believing anything that these groups have to say, even when those statements are valid and important for the public to understand.