More lazy tobacco reporting

I know, I know, you guys don’t come here just to read posts about tobacco regulation. We’ve got some non-smoking content coming soon. But first, this:

Parents who smoke often open a window or turn on a fan to clear the air for their children, but experts now have identified a related threat to children’s health that isn’t as easy to get rid of: third-hand smoke.

That’s the term being used to describe the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to smokers’ hair and clothing, not to mention cushions and carpeting, that lingers long after second-hand smoke has cleared from a room. The residue includes heavy metals, carcinogens and even radioactive materials that young children can get on their hands and ingest, especially if they’re crawling or playing on the floor.

Doctors from MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston coined the term “third-hand smoke” to describe these chemicals in a new study that focused on the risks they pose to infants and children. The study was published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics…

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician who heads the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said the phrase third-hand smoke is a brand-new term that has implications for behavior.

“The central message here is that simply closing the kitchen door to take a smoke is not protecting the kids from the effects of that smoke,” he said. “There are carcinogens in this third-hand smoke, and they are a cancer risk for anybody of any age who comes into contact with them.”

Among the substances in third-hand smoke are hydrogen cyanide, used in chemical weapons; butane, which is used in lighter fluid; toluene, found in paint thinners; arsenic; lead; carbon monoxide; and even polonium-210, the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006. Eleven of the compounds are highly carcinogenic.

Are blankets in your home killing your baby? Is your jacket radioactive? These sound like the kind of hyped teasers you’d see on local TV news, but this is from New York Times reporter Roni Caryn Rabin. Note that, as usual, there’s no source in the article to counter that these researchers might be going a bit overboard in their claims. But worse is that the article gives so much credence to the study itself. How was it conducted?

The study reported on attitudes toward smoking in 1,500 households across the United States… The data was collected in a national random-digit-dial telephone survey done between September and November 2005. The sample was weighted by race and gender, based on census information.

That’s right, the study did no epidemiological research whatsoever. It consisted entirely of phoning up random people and asking them what they believe about the dangers of tobacco smoke. For this they received completely uncritical coverage in one of the nation’s best newspapers and a chance to repeat their sweeping claims about “third-hand smoke.” As long as scientists say bad things about tobacco, it seems that they can literally just make stuff up and expect compliant reporters to hype their findings.

The authors do cite one other study that claims a link between exposure to ambient chemicals from tobacco smoke and lower cognitive performance in children, though there are reasons to doubt the results. And good parents probably shouldn’t swaddle their babies in blankets that reek of tobacco smoke. But given that smokers spend decades inhaling cigarette smoke directly into their lungs before major health problems set in, it’s going to require very rigorous findings to conclude that simply having smoky clothing in the same room as a child is harmful. The study here doesn’t even make an attempt.

The worst aspect of these doctors’ propaganda is that it will be used to further demonize smokers. Just as non-smokers who used to view brief exposure to secondhand smoke as a mere annoyance now believe it takes years off their lives, casual readers of this article will believe that being caught in an elevator with a person who smells like smoke is going to turn them into Alexander Litvinenko. Mothers and fathers who take the utmost care to smoke only far away from their children will be shunned as bad parents for smoking at all. It will no longer be enough for smokers to stand outside in the cold and rain 25 feet from any door or window; the mere aromatic evidence that one has been smoking will become an affront to civilized society.

I’m going to go ahead and complete the circle by coining my own term: fourth-hand smoke. That’s the first-hand smoke you’re exposed to when you’re so annoyed by society’s growing nannyism that you take up smoking just out of spite. My first cigarette (of very few) was lit in protest of DC’s smoking ban several years ago. I’m sure there are others whose rebellion has drawn them to their very first taste of tobacco. Maybe I’ll call up some random people and see if they feel the same way. New York Times coverage will be right around the corner.

[Big thanks to Rumors Daily for the link. See also the take at TennesseeFree, thanks to Chad.]


12 thoughts on “More lazy tobacco reporting”

  1. Hey, it’s not my fault all the bans go into effect on Jan. 1 and scientists release their shoddy studies during the holidays when critics are on vacation. I work with what I’m given, man.

  2. I just had to comment on this superb post. I live in Toronto, where authoritarian anti-smoking laws have been in place for years. I actually started smoking (in my 30s; yes I know it was stupid) partly in reaction to the sanctimony of our local nanny-state culture (and partly because I started working at a bar, where most of the staff smoked). So I am a living, breathing (ahem) example of the effects of fourth-hand smoke! Of course, in Canada, the most common justification people have for government intrusion into private behavior of this sort is the increased costs to our public health-care system–which has always seemed to me an inadvertent argument against socialized medicine. Anyway, keep up the good libertarian fight!


    Though repetition has little to do with “the truth,” we’re repeatedly told that there’s “no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.”

    OSHA begs to differ.

    OSHA has established PELs (Permissible Exposure Levels) for all the measurable chemicals, including the 40 alleged carcinogens, in secondhand smoke. PELs are levels of exposure for an 8-hour workday from which, according to OSHA, no harm will result.

    Of course the idea of “thousands of chemicals” can itself sound spooky. Perhaps it would help to note that coffee contains over 1000 chemicals, 19 of which are known to be rat carcinogens.
    -“Rodent Carcinogens: Setting Priorities” Gold Et Al., Science, 258: 261-65 (1992)

    There. Feel better?

    As for secondhand smoke in the air, OSHA has stated outright that:

    “Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELS.) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)…It would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded.”
    -Letter From Greg Watchman, Acting Sec’y, OSHA, To Leroy J Pletten, PHD, July 8, 1997

    Indeed it would.

    Independent health researchers have done the chemistry and the math to prove how very very rare that would be.

    As you’re about to see in a moment.

    In 1999, comments were solicited by the government from an independent Public and Health Policy Research group, Littlewood & Fennel of Austin, Tx, on the subject of secondhand smoke.

    Using EPA figures on the emissions per cigarette of everything measurable in secondhand smoke, they compared them to OSHA’s PELs.

    The following excerpt and chart are directly from their report and their Washington testimony:


    “We have taken the substances for which measurements have actually been obtained–very few, of course, because it’s difficult to even find these chemicals in diffuse and diluted ETS.

    “We posit a sealed, unventilated enclosure that is 20 feet square with a 9 foot ceiling clearance.

    “Taking the figures for ETS yields per cigarette directly from the EPA, we calculated the number of cigarettes that would be required to reach the lowest published “danger” threshold for each of these substances. The results are actually quite amusing. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a situation where these threshold limits could be realized.

    “Our chart (Table 1) illustrates each of these substances, but let me report some notable examples.

    “For Benzo[a]pyrene, 222,000 cigarettes would be required to reach the lowest published “danger” threshold.

    “For Acetone, 118,000 cigarettes would be required.

    “Toluene would require 50,000 packs of simultaneously smoldering cigarettes.

    “At the lower end of the scale– in the case of Acetaldehyde or Hydrazine, more than 14,000 smokers would need to light up simultaneously in our little room to reach the threshold at which they might begin to pose a danger.

    “For Hydroquinone, “only” 1250 cigarettes are required. Perhaps we could post a notice limiting this 20-foot square room to 300 rather tightly-packed people smoking no more than 62 packs per hour?

    “Of course the moment we introduce real world factors to the room — a door, an open window or two, or a healthy level of mechanical air exchange (remember, the room we’ve been talking about is sealed) achieving these levels becomes even more implausible.

    “It becomes increasingly clear to us that ETS is a political, rather than scientific, scapegoat.”

  4. “Toxic Toxicology” Littlewood & Fennel

    Coming at OSHA from quite a different angle is litigator (and how!) John Banzhaf, founder and president of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

    Banzhaf is on record as wanting to remove healthy children from intact homes if one of their family smokes. He also favors national smoking bans both indoors and out throughout America, and has litigation kits for sale on how to get your landlord to evict your smoking neighbors.

    Banzhaf originally wanted OSHA to ban smoking in all American workplaces.

    It’s not even that OSHA wasn’t happy to play along; it’s just that–darn it — they couldn’t find the real-world science to make it credible.

    So Banzhaf sued them. Suing federal agencies to get them to do what you want is, alas, a new trick in the political deck of cards. But OSHA, at least apparently, hung tough.

    In response to Banzhaf’s law suit they said the best they could do would be to set some official standards for permissible levels of smoking in the workplace.

    Scaring Banzhaf, and Glantz and the rest of them to death.

    Permissible levels? No, no. That would mean that OSHA, officially, said that smoking was permitted. That in fact, there were levels (hard to exceed, as we hope we’ve already shown) that were generally safe.

    This so frightened Banzhaf that he dropped the case. Here are excerpts from his press release:

    “ASH has agreed to dismiss its lawsuit against OSHA…to avoid serious harm to the non-smokers rights movement from adverse action OSHA had threatened to take if forced by the suit to do it….developing some hypothetical [ASH’s characterization] measurement of smoke pollution that might be a better remedy than prohibiting smoking….[T]his could seriously hurt efforts to pass non-smokers’ rights legislation at the state and local level…

    Another major threat was that, if the agency were forced by ASH’s suit to promulgate a rule regulating workplace smoking, [it] would be likely to pass a weak one…. This weak rule in turn could preempt future and possibly even existing non-smokers rights laws– a risk no one was willing to take.

    As a result of ASH’s dismissal of the suit, OSHA will now withdraw its rule-making proceedings but will do so without using any of the damaging [to Anti activists] language they had threatened to include.”
    -ASH Nixes OSHA Suit To Prevent Harm To Movement

    Looking on the bright side, Banzhaf concludes:

    “We might now be even more successful in persuading states and localities to ban smoking on their own, once they no longer have OSHA rule-making to hide behind.”

    Once again, the Anti-Smoking Movement reveals that it’s true motive is basically Prohibition (stopping smokers from smoking; making them “social outcasts”) –not “safe air.”

    And the attitude seems to be, as Stanton Glantz says, if the science doesn’t “help” you, don’t do the science.

    March 8, 1998

    Passive smoking doesn’t cause cancer – official
    By Victoria Macdonald, Health Correspondent

    THE world’s leading health organization has withheld from publication a study which shows that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer but that it could even have a protective effect.

    The astounding results are set to throw wide open the debate on passive smoking health risks. The World Health Organization, which commissioned the 12-centre, seven-country European study has failed to make the findings public, and has instead produced only a summary of the results in an internal report.

    Despite repeated approaches, nobody at the WHO headquarters in Geneva would comment on the findings last week. At its International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon , France , which coordinated the study, a spokesman would say only that the full report had been submitted to a science journal and no publication date had been set.

    The findings are certain to be an embarrassment to the WHO, which has spent years and vast sums on anti-smoking and anti-tobacco campaigns. The study is one of the largest ever to look at the link between passive smoking – or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) – and lung cancer, and had been eagerly awaited by medical experts and campaigning groups.

    Yet the scientists have found that there was no statistical evidence that passive smoking caused lung cancer. The research compared 650 lung cancer patients with 1,542 healthy people. It looked at people who were married to smokers, worked with smokers, both worked and were married to smokers, and those who grew up with smokers.

    The results are consistent with their being no additional risk for a person living or working with a smoker and could be consistent with passive smoke having a protective effect against lung cancer. The summary, seen by The Telegraph, also states: “There was no association between lung cancer risk and ETS exposure during childhood.”

    A spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health said the findings “seem rather surprising given the evidence from other major reviews on the subject which have shown a clear association between passive smoking and a number of diseases.” Roy Castle, the jazz musician and television presenter who died from lung cancer in 1994, claimed that he contracted the disease from years of inhaling smoke while performing in pubs and clubs.

    A report published in the British Medical Journal last October was hailed by the anti-tobacco lobby as definitive proof when it claimed that non-smokers living with smokers had a 25 per cent risk of developing lung cancer. But yesterday, Dr Chris Proctor, head of science for BAT Industries, the tobacco group, said the findings had to be taken seriously. “If this study cannot find any statistically valid risk you have to ask if there can be any risk at all.

    “It confirms what we and many other scientists have long believed, that while smoking in public may be annoying to some non-smokers, the science does not show that being around a smoker is a lung-cancer risk.” The WHO study results come at a time when the British Government has made clear its intention to crack down on smoking in thousands of public places, including bars and restaurants.

    The Government’s own Scientific Committee on Smoking and Health is also expected to report shortly – possibly in time for this Wednesday’s National No Smoking day – on the hazards of passive smoking.

  6. Scientific Evidence Shows Secondhand Smoke Is No Danger
    Written By: Jerome Arnett, Jr., M.D.
    Published In: Environment & Climate News
    Publication Date: July 1, 2008
    Publisher: The Heartland Institute

    Exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS) is an unpleasant experience for many nonsmokers, and for decades was considered a nuisance. But the idea that it might actually cause disease in nonsmokers has been around only since the 1970s.

    Recent surveys show more than 80 percent of Americans now believe secondhand smoke is harmful to nonsmokers.

    Federal Government Reports

    A 1972 U.S. surgeon general’s report first addressed passive smoking as a possible threat to nonsmokers and called for an anti-smoking movement. The issue was addressed again in surgeon generals’ reports in 1979, 1982, and 1984.

    A 1986 surgeon general’s report concluded involuntary smoking caused lung cancer, but it offered only weak epidemiological evidence to support the claim. In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was charged with further evaluating the evidence for health effects of SHS.

    In 1992 EPA published its report, “Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking,” claiming SHS is a serious public health problem, that it kills approximately 3,000 nonsmoking Americans each year from lung cancer, and that it is a Group A carcinogen (like benzene, asbestos, and radon).

    The report has been used by the tobacco-control movement and government agencies, including public health departments, to justify the imposition of thousands of indoor smoking bans in public places.

    Flawed Assumptions

    EPA’s 1992 conclusions are not supported by reliable scientific evidence. The report has been largely discredited and, in 1998, was legally vacated by a federal judge.

    Even so, the EPA report was cited in the surgeon general’s 2006 report on SHS, where then-Surgeon General Richard Carmona made the absurd claim that there is no risk-free level of exposure to SHS.

    For its 1992 report, EPA arbitrarily chose to equate SHS with mainstream (or firsthand) smoke. One of the agency’s stated assumptions was that because there is an association between active smoking and lung cancer, there also must be a similar association between SHS and lung cancer.

    But the problem posed by SHS is entirely different from that found with mainstream smoke. A well-recognized toxicological principle states, “The dose makes the poison.”

    Accordingly, we physicians record direct exposure to cigarette smoke by smokers in the medical record as “pack-years smoked” (packs smoked per day times the number of years smoked). A smoking history of around 10 pack-years alerts the physician to search for cigarette-caused illness. But even those nonsmokers with the greatest exposure to SHS probably inhale the equivalent of only a small fraction (around 0.03) of one cigarette per day, which is equivalent to smoking around 10 cigarettes per year.

    Low Statistical Association

    Another major problem is that the epidemiological studies on which the EPA report is based are statistical studies that can show only correlation and cannot prove causation.

    One statistical method used to compare the rates of a disease in two populations is relative risk (RR). It is the rate of disease found in the exposed population divided by the rate found in the unexposed population. An RR of 1.0 represents zero increased risk. Because confounding and other factors can obscure a weak association, in order even to suggest causation a very strong association must be found, on the order of at least 300 percent to 400 percent, which is an RR of 3.0 to 4.0.

    For example, the studies linking direct cigarette smoking with lung cancer found an incidence in smokers of 20 to around 40 times that in nonsmokers, an association of 2000 percent to 4000 percent, or an RR of 20.0 to 40.0.

    Scientific Principles Ignored

    An even greater problem is the agency’s lowering of the confidence interval (CI) used in its report. Epidemiologists calculate confidence intervals to express the likelihood a result could happen just by chance. A CI of 95 percent allows a 5 percent possibility that the results occurred only by chance.

    Before its 1992 report, EPA had always used epidemiology’s gold standard CI of 95 percent to measure statistical significance. But because the U.S. studies chosen for the report were not statistically significant within a 95 percent CI, for the first time in its history EPA changed the rules and used a 90 percent CI, which doubled the chance of being wrong.

    This allowed it to report a statistically significant 19 percent increase of lung cancer cases in the nonsmoking spouses of smokers over those cases found in nonsmoking spouses of nonsmokers. Even though the RR was only 1.19–an amount far short of what is normally required to demonstrate correlation or causality–the agency concluded this was proof SHS increased the risk of U.S. nonsmokers developing lung cancer by 19 percent.

    EPA Study Soundly Rejected

    In November 1995 after a 20-month study, the Congressional Research Service released a detailed analysis of the EPA report that was highly critical of EPA’s methods and conclusions. In 1998, in a devastating 92-page opinion, Federal Judge William Osteen vacated the EPA study, declaring it null and void. He found a culture of arrogance, deception, and cover-up at the agency.

    Osteen noted, “First, there is evidence in the record supporting the accusation that EPA ‘cherry picked’ its data. … In order to confirm its hypothesis, EPA maintained its standard significance level but lowered the confidence interval to 90 percent. This allowed EPA to confirm its hypothesis by finding a relative risk of 1.19, albeit a very weak association. … EPA cannot show a statistically significant association between [SHS] and lung cancer.”

    In 2003 a definitive paper on SHS and lung cancer mortality was published in the British Medical Journal. It is the largest and most detailed study ever reported. The authors studied more than 35,000 California never-smokers over a 39-year period and found no statistically significant association between exposure to SHS and lung cancer mortality.

    Propaganda Trumps Science

    The 1992 EPA report is an example of the use of epidemiology to promote belief in an epidemic instead of to investigate one. It has damaged the credibility of EPA and has tainted the fields of epidemiology and public health.

    In addition, influential anti-tobacco activists, including prominent academics, have unethically attacked the research of eminent scientists in order to further their ideological and political agendas.

    The abuse of scientific integrity and the generation of faulty “scientific” outcomes (through the use of pseudoscience) have led to the deception of the American public on a grand scale and to draconian government overregulation and the squandering of public money.

    Millions of dollars have been spent promoting belief in SHS as a killer, and more millions of dollars have been spent by businesses in order to comply with thousands of highly restrictive bans, while personal choice and freedom have been denied to millions of smokers. Finally, and perhaps most tragically, all this has diverted resources away from discovering the true cause(s) of lung cancer in nonsmokers.

    Dr. Jerome Arnett Jr. ( is a pulmonologist who lives in Helvetia, West Virginia.

  7. A 15/day smoker gets about a half picocurie per day. A typical nonsmoker living or working with smokers might get about 1/100th of that, or about 5 femtocuries/day.

    A millicurie is a thousand microcuries, a million nanocuries, a billion picocuries, or a trillion femtocuries.

    It would take that nonsmoker a trillion days to absorb the dose that killed the Russian.

    Of course that’s secondhand smoke. The article referred to “third-hand smoke” absorption by a child from surfaces left over from past smoking. A reasonable estimate for the amount remaining stuck to the 10,000 squarefeet of walls, ceilings, furniture, floors, and draperies in a reasonably ventilated 2,000+ sq. ft home would almost certainly be less than 1%, but let’s assume that 1% actually does remain and spreads out over that 10,000 sq. ft. of surface. With 15 cigarettes having been smoked while the child was at school and the house then thoroughly aired out, we’d then have 1% of a half picocurie (i.e. 5 femtocuries) spread over that surface.

    Let us suppose you don’t watch your child very carefully and further suppose the child deeply loves licking an entire 10 sq. ft. of floor sparkly clean every day during Jeopardy! That child will then have licked 1/1,000th of those 5 femtocuries into his system: 5 “attocuries.”

    So, how long would it take such a child to get the “killing dose” of the 5 millicurie Russian that the Times article featured?

    In 1,000 days our child would have licked up 5 femtocuries.
    In one million days, 5 picocuries.
    In one billion days, 5 nanocuries.
    In one trillion days, 5 microcuries.
    It would take one quadrillion days (2.74 trillion years) for that child to absorb 5 millicuries.

    Unfortunately the universe is only 10 billion years old, so the child would have to lick floors for 274 cycles of our expanding universe to match our radioactive Russian.

    Of course since he’d normally excrete most of that polonium we’d have to refuse to change his diaper until the end of that period… not a very pleasant thought.

    And then there’s that whole annoying fact that the half life of polonium is only 138 days, so we’d just have to ignore the laws of physics as well in order to justify the story’s thesis.

    Even if someone wanted to quibble with my estimates, changing 1% to 10%, or 10 sq ft to 100, or 15 cigarettes to 150 cigarettes per day… or even ALL THREE in attacking my argument… we’d STILL be talking three billion years of exposure along with a suspension of the laws of biology and physics.

  8. Thank you kindly for responding to my comment yesterday, Jacob, and for providing some helpful ammunition in any future debates with anti-smokers (as distinct from level-headed non-smokers, who prefer to live and let live…so to speak).

    Regarding the idea that smokers actually save the government health-care costs in the long run by dying younger, before other chronic health problems arise: I wonder if another factor might be taken into account. That is, in today’s cultural climate, how many people who smoke in their 20s and 30s actually keep smoking as they age long enough for pervasive damage to set in? I assume that many people will reduce unhealthy lifestyle habits as their bodies start to feel the effects, when they have children for whom they wish to provide good modeling, through peer pressure and pressure from their doctors, etc.

    So, young smokers will do themselves some, and perhaps only temporary, harm; but as thoughts of mortality creep in, they will quit smoking, halt/reverse the damage they’ve done, and begin the process of living long enough to become a burden on the health-care system. Heh, just doesn’t seem fair, does it?

    I certainly do not wish to be a smoker my whole life, and hope that a sense of diminishing returns, of declining health for less and less pleasure, will provide the necessary provocation when the time comes. If Christopher Hitchens can quit, there’s hope for anyone!

  9. Ok I get it. Us smokers stink of smoke. You don’t like the smell. Fine, but I don’t like the smell of the alcoholic drink on your lousy breath either. ooh ohh I know….. let’s ban alcohol too. It’s bad for your liver. It’s your liver you say…. Welllll… it’s bad that you drink and drive…..ban alcohol… makes everyone’s health insurance go up when you practice risky behaviours…. then ban alcohol… People didn’t want to smell our smoke inside resteruants and bars…we went outside. Now people don’t want us to smoke at all…..why? Because they can only come up with one good reason for themselves…. that even the residue will kill them….they are convinced that we are killing them. Well I am convinced that a drunk driver may kill me one day, I’m going to get up on MY soapbox and make sure they ban alcohol. What has happened to society is that everyone wants to control and have a say in what others are doing with their own bodies. It needs to stop or we will have a “Big Brother” situation. You’ll know that i was being sarcastic about alcohol….right??

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