Reuters hypes thirdhand smoke fears

Reuters reporter Maggie Fox buys into the thirdhand smoke scare:

Old tobacco smoke does more than simply make a room smell stale — it can leave cancer-causing toxins behind, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

They found cancer-causing agents called tobacco-specific nitrosamines stick to a variety of surfaces, where they can get into dust or be picked up on the fingers. Children and infants are the most likely to pick them up, the team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California reported.

“These findings raise concerns about exposures to the tobacco smoke residue that has been recently dubbed ‘third-hand smoke’,” the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, available here.

Of course there are policy implications:

James Pankow, who also worked on the study, said it may raise questions about the safety of electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes.” which produce a nicotine vapor but not smoke.

The researchers said regulators who have cracked down on second-hand smoke with smoking bans may decide to consider policies on third-hand smoke.

That nicotine works on surfaces in this way is interesting from an abstract, scientific point of view. What the article fails to mention is that there is essentially no evidence that anyone, anywhere, has ever suffered from exposure to so-called “thirdhand smoke.” The reason these carcinogens are so deadly to cigarette smokers is that smokers inhale them deeply through their mouths directly into sensitive lung tissues dozens of times per day. Exposure from surfaces or from dust inhalation through the nose is going to be far less substantial.

Nonetheless, you probably shouldn’t wrap your infant in smoky blankets. Fair enough. But spreading paranoia about thirdhand smoke has significant negative consequences. We’ve already seen employers discriminate against smokers using these fears as justification. And if this research is used to back legislation against e-cigarettes — devices that are unequivocally safer to smoke than actual tobacco — that will be a blow to public health.

Unfortunately journalists tend to be extremely credulous of any research that condemns tobacco and its related products. Last year The New York Times gave significant coverage to a thirdhand smoke study that consisted entirely of conducting a telephone poll of random people. Soon after Scientific American published an uncritical interview with the study’s author, Jonathan Winickoff, who said in an unmeasured words, “Smokers themselves are also contaminated…smokers actually emit toxins.”

If reporters are going to cover these sorts of stories, they owe it to readers to put the actual risks in proper perspective.

[Via Lene Johansen’s Twitter feed.]

Update: Since writing this some debate has gone back and forth on Twitter among science writer Lene Johansen, Jeff Stier at the American Counsel on Science and Health, and Reuters health editor Ivan Oransky. Since Twitter isn’t the most conducive format for extended comments I thought I’d clarify here why I object to the article.

The problem is not that this is junk science or that it shouldn’t be covered. The problem is that people reading the article aren’t interested in the abstract question of how nicotine reacts with other chemicals on a household surface. What they want to know is whether tobacco residue presents a real health hazard to them and whether there are policy implications stemming from the research.

A layman reading about all the carcinogens mentioned in the article would conclude that the health hazard is real. Given the dosages involved this belief is likely false and is certainly unproven. As science journalism, the article fails to give readers the context they need to make sense of the research.

As for policy, the article itself notes that the research is bound up with political goals. The findings may be used to justify such measures as employment discrimination, bans on e-cigarettes, and further restrictions on smokers. This makes providing the proper context doubly important. There are plenty of reputable skeptics of these measures and at the very least the article could have quoted one.

Update 2/9/10: Chris Snowdon’s lengthy debunking of thirdhand smoke fears from last year is worth rereading.


Miracle fruit medicine

Another miracle fruit story? Yawn. But this one has an interesting tidbit:

About five months ago, a Miami, Florida, hospital began studying whether the fruit’s sweetening effects can restore the appetite of cancer patients whose chemotherapy treatments have left them with dulled taste buds.

“What happens in patients is the food tastes so metallic and bland, it becomes repulsive,” said Dr. Mike Cusnir, a lead researcher on the project and oncologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the patients undergoing chemotherapy have weight loss. Then they cut further into their diet and then this furthers the weight loss. It causes malnutrition, decreased function of the body and electrolyte imbalance.” […]

Cusnir filed for an investigational new drug application, which is required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use an unapproved product in a new patient population. His study seeks 40 cancer patients.

“The majority have given good feedback that it did improve taste,” Cusnir said. “A few patients felt there wasn’t much change. The feedback is mixed as it usually is in any situation. It’s been encouraging, but we haven’t analyzed the data so far.”

The FDA has stonewalled journalists seeking information about why the agency shut down efforts to market miraculin, the protein in miracle fruit that causes sour foods to taste sweet. Hopefully being faced with a new application will force them to be more transparent, or at least to give the berry another chance. Meeting safety standards for medicinal use might also pave the way toward getting it approved as a food additive in consumer products.

[Thanks, Julian!]