Thursday, February 18, 2010

IN MY VIEW: Why Disseminating Unsupported Conclusions About Thirdhand Smoke Risks is So Irresponsible

Yesterday, I opined that it is inappropriate for researchers to disseminate unsupported conclusions about the risks that smokers pose to others in the household even if they only smoke outside the home. Today, I explain why I think spreading this undocumented information is irresponsible.

The Rest of the Story

Imagine, for a moment, that it were true that the mere presence of nicotine residue on the skin and clothing of a smoker posed a substantial health hazard to the people around them because of the formation of tobacco-specific nitrosamines to which nonsmokers could be exposed through dust inhalation (or in the case of infants - through dust ingestion and skin absorption). Suppose it were true that living with a smoker - even one who smokes only outside the home - posed a significant cancer risk. If this were the case, then the anti-smoking groups would have all the ammunition they need to push for policies to prohibit smokers from being day care providers or teachers. They would be able to argue that smokers should not be allowed in the workplace or public places because of the risks they pose to other people even if they are not actively smoking.

Even just focusing on the most vulnerable - infants and children - anti-smoking groups could make the argument that smokers should not be allowed to care for young children, either in day care settings or nursery school settings. They would also be able to argue that smokers should not be allowed to adopt or foster infants or young children, even if they only smoke outside of the home.

These are drastic measures that severely interfere with the freedom, autonomy, and rights of smokers. Surely, we would not want to impose such measures in the absence of definitive evidence that children are being substantially harmed by the tobacco-specific nitrosamines produced from nicotine residues resulting from deposition from the skin and clothing of smokers.

Unfortunately, the thirdhand smoke researchers have already disseminated - internationally - the conclusion that smokers pose a significant threat to infants and children even by their mere presence in the environment of these young people. Even if they do not smoke in their presence.

This is why it is so irresponsible to disseminate such conclusions without any evidence. The result is going to be actions that interfere with the freedom, autonomy, and rights of smokers, such as banning them from adopting or fostering children, prohibiting them from teaching or day care positions, or even barring them from the workplace entirely.

If you think I'm exaggerating, think twice. Anti-smoking groups are already supporting such policies and some of them have already been adopted. In fact, just this week a locality in Scotland prohibited smokers from adopting or fostering young children. Not only does this ill-advised policy unfairly trounce on the rights of smokers, but it also severely harms children by preventing or delaying their being placed with loving and supportive families. To do that on the basis of scientific evidence that is non-existent is criminal.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is already pushing for policies that ban smokers from the workplace. ASH is already arguing that the exhaled breath of smokers is toxic and sufficient grounds to bar smokers from any workplace.

Already, there are newspaper headlines that read: "Third-hand Tobacco Smoke Causes Cancer." This is a hysterical claim, as even if we take the conclusions of the researchers as being true, it still doesn't prove that thirdhand smoke exposure causes cancer. Epidemiologic studies have not provided any evidence that childhood exposure to secondhand smoke exposure increases cancer risk. Nevertheless, these are the headlines that are spreading throughout the world because of the irresponsible and unsupported conclusions that are being disseminated by tobacco researchers.

The rest of the story is that it is irresponsible to disseminate conclusions that are not supported by any scientific evidence, especially if that information will be used to infringe upon the freedom, autonomy, and rights of individuals.

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