Thursday, April 17, 2014

Anti-Smoking Advocate Claims that Inhaling Small Amounts of Nicotine Can Be Deadly

In an April 2 press release, anti-smoking advocate John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and former director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), claims that inhaling even small amounts of nicotine can be deadly. He also tells the public that breathing in tobacco smoke for only 30 minutes raises a nonsmoker's risk of a fatal heart attack to that of a long-time smoker's. And to top it off, he claims that inhalation of propylene glycol can cause seizures.

According to the press release:

"Nicotine, even when inhaled in small amounts by nonsmokers, can be deadly. That's why the CDC has warned that nonsmokers seated in the no-smoking sections of restaurants, and inhaling only the nicotine in the small amount of smoke which drifts to their table, nevertheless increase their risk of a heart attack to that of a smoker in as little as 30 minutes."

Also according to the release:

"Experts have warned that propylene glycol should not be inhaled because it can cause respiratory irritation, convulsions, and gastrointestinal distress."

The Rest of the Story

All of these claims are false or highly misleading.

First, the inhalation of nicotine is not deadly. While Banzhaf seems to imply that even the acute inhalation of nicotine is deadly, even if we take his statement to mean that the long-term inhalation of nicotine is deadly, it is still unsupported by scientific evidence. It is not the nicotine which makes cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke deadly; it is the tar, or the other components of the smoke. If what Banzhaf is saying were true, then would he not want to demand that the FDA take nicotine inhalers off the market. After all, if inhaling small amounts of nicotine can be deadly, then surely we would not want anyone to be using a nicotine inhaler.

Second, it is not true that breathing in tobacco smoke for 30 minutes raises a nonsmoker's risk of a heart attack to that of a smoker. The truth is that an otherwise healthy nonsmoker is not going to suffer a heart attack as a result of 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke. A nonsmoker's risk of a heart attack from breathing tobacco smoke for 30 minutes is not the same as that of a smoker. It is actually zero. You are not going to have a heart attack if you don't have coronary artery disease; and 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke is not going to clog your coronary arteries.

Third, the inhalation of propylene glycol from an electronic cigarette is not a cause of seizures. Would we not have expected to have heard reports of seizures from electronic cigarettes by now, given that more than 2 million Americans are using this product and it has been in widespread use across the world for the past 3 years?

I don't understand the point of this scare-mongering. But its effects are to undermine the public's appreciation of the severe health effects of smoking and potentially to promote a return to cigarette smoking among ex-smokers who achieved cessation using electronic cigarettes. Thus, these public statements are not only false but they are damaging as well.

Moreover, statements like these are going to eventually undermine or destroy the scientific reputation of the tobacco control movement. There is only so much of this we can tolerate before the public begins to dismiss everything we say.

Sadly, very few advocates in the tobacco control movement are willing to call other anti-smoking practitioners or groups on this kind of nonsense. And that is exactly what allows this to continue.

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