Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Surgeon General Issues Advice to Protect Children from Secondhand Smoke

In commemoration of World No-Tobacco Day, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona today issued a series of ten recommendations for parents to prevent their children from exposure to secondhand smoke. In releasing the recommendations, the Surgeon General stated: "Starting today, on World No Tobacco Day, we can take simple steps to protect both our children's health and the future of our country."

Among his recommendations, the Surgeon General specifically addressed steps to prevent children's exposure to secondhand smoke in restaurants. His advice: "Insist on being in the non-smoking section in restaurants and other public places. Good health begins at home, but it does not end there. Do not settle for being seated in the smoking section, and if an establishment does not have a non-smoking section, consider taking your business elsewhere."

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It strikes me that this is pretty shoddy advice, given that secondhand smoke does not confine itself to the non-smoking section in restaurants, but spreads (by the laws of physics) to all areas of an enclosed indoor space. The Surgeon General's own Department (Health and Human Services) has made it clear that designated smoking and non-smoking areas are scientifically non-viable options to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure.

Is the Surgeon General really recommending to parents of asthmatic children that they eat in the non-smoking section of restaurants that allow smoking? If so, this appears to be quite an irresponsible recommendation, since it is sure to induce asthma attacks in children by exposing them to secondhand smoke, which doesn't miraculously dissipate when it hits a boundary with a non-smoking area. It also seems misleading, since it may give parents the inaccurate impression that if they sit in a non-smoking section they are protecting their children.

Certainly, a more responsible and scientifically defensible recommendation would have been to advise parents to avoid bringing their children to restaurants that allow smoking and instead, to patronize establishments that are smoke-free.

It is perplexing why the Surgeon General would make such a misleading and irresponsible recommendation. The Surgeon General's office is most certainly aware of the science that the Department and its Office on Smoking and Health has been putting out for over a decade, indicating the inadequacy of non-smoking sections in protecting the public from the hazards of secondhand smoke. So the recommendation appears most likely to represent an intentional disregard for the science on this matter. Could it be that the Surgeon General is trying to avoid any kind of political "controversy" by avoiding the possibility that he is supporting the idea of smoke-free restaurants? If so, then it is quite disappointing, as that puts politics ahead of science and most imporantly, ahead of the protection of the public's health.

Whatever the reason, I hope that the public pays no heed to this bogus recommendation. There is no justification for advising parents who wish to protect their children from secondhand smoke to take their children to restauarants or other public places where smoking is allowed, even if
the smoking is confined to designated areas.

It's just a shock that this advice is coming not from the tobacco industry, but from the figure who is supposed to be our leading spokesperson for health protection - the U.S. Surgeon General.

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