Advocacy research: what a filthy habit

New research suggesting ‘third-hand smoke’ is a major health hazard was spurred by policy, not hard science.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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First we were told – quite reasonably – that smoking was bad for us. It increases the risk of a variety of diseases, particularly lung cancer and respiratory illnesses, as well as making heart disease and stroke more likely. No one who smokes regularly can be unaware that there is a fair chance that their habit will shorten their life, even if the immediate prospect of a stimulating drag is more enticing than a few extra years of old age. We’ve all got to die of something, at some point; it’s up to us to make a calculation about whether that nicotine hit is worth it.

More controversial was the suggestion that breathing other people’s smoke might be dangerous, too. Okay, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if those nights of old spent steeped in a nicotine-tinged fug in the Dog and Duck didn’t exactly do one’s lungs the world of good. The smell certainly lingered on your clothes. Even then, anyone who remembers boozers in the past, or the top-deck of the bus on a winter’s evening, will know that the modern, well-ventilated, pre-smoking ban pub was a much less smoky environment. By rather dubiously extrapolating from some small personal risks, based on smoking studies that probably bear little relevance to twenty-first century Western workplaces, official estimates concluded that about 1,000 people per year die from ‘secondhand’ smoke in the UK. In July 2007, a ban on smoking in public places came into force in England. The tobacco lovers were turfed out on to the street.

Yet even the junk science of secondhand smoke seems like the stuff of Nobel Prizes next to the new kid on the block: ‘third-hand smoke’. Now, claim researchers, you don’t even need to breathe smoke in, you simply need to be in contact with smokers or touch surfaces that have been in contact with their smoke to be at risk. If the dodgy research that produced the smoking ban was bullshit, the claims made for third-hand smoking are in a whole new category: ‘beyond bullshit’.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California found that carcinogens from cigarettes linger in the environment on clothing, floors and walls long after smoke has dispersed. Worse, their shock-horror discovery was that some of these substances can then go on to react with these surfaces to produce more carcinogens. Mohamad Sleiman, the lead researcher, told Scientific American: ‘Our findings indicate that third-hand smoke represents an unappreciated health hazard.’

Another of the researchers, Lara Gundel, told the magazine: ‘Smoking outside is better than smoking indoors, but nicotine residues will stick to a smoker’s skin and clothing… These residues follow a smoker back inside and get spread everywhere.’ Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that cigarette smoke gets everywhere and eventually coats everything near it with a nasty, yellow stain. And it would surprise no one to find that if you tried cleaning these stains off with, for example, your tongue, it might not be terribly pleasant.

But the study doesn’t measure the risk from these smoky residues. Instead, researchers simply imply that there must be a risk, coming up with all sorts of scenarios to suggest why we might be facing a hidden danger. For example, in another Scientific American article, Jonathan Winickoff, a Boston paediatrician, explains why these residues might be a particular danger to babies: ‘Children ingest twice the amount of dust that grown-ups do. Let’s say a grown-up weighs 150 pounds [68 kilograms]. Let’s say a baby weighs 15 pounds [seven kilograms]. The infant ingests twice the dust [due to faster respiration and proximity to dusty surfaces]. Effectively, they’ll get 20 times the exposure.’ Children pick up all sorts of bugs while crawling around, some of which of which make them ill, but the risk of ingesting enough tobacco toxins to cause cancer must be infinitesimally small.

Then, Winickoff – whose research team is credited with inventing the term ‘third-hand smoke’ – skips merrily on to suggest that this might explain cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (also know as SIDS or ‘cot death’). And just to bolster the argument, the article quotes perhaps America’s leading anti-smoking campaigner, Stanton Glantz: ‘The third-hand smoke idea… has been around for a long time. It’s only recently been given a name and studied… The level of toxicity in cigarette smoke is just astronomical when compared to other environmental toxins.’

This is not cold, hard-headed investigation; this is ‘advocacy research’. Those involved have decided that tobacco smoke is not just a threat to smokers but to everyone, particularly children. Unsurprisingly, their work then confirms this prejudice. Winickoff is asked in that Scientific American article why the label ‘third-hand smoke’ was chosen. ‘This study points to the need for every smoker to try to quit. That’s the only way to completely protect their children… Really, I think that what this says is that we need to have sympathy for smokers and help them quit smoking… [And also] that the introduction of this concept will lead to more smoke-free spaces in… public.’

The mere presence of carcinogens does not mean that we will suffer from cancer. In fact, we are bombarded with carcinogens every day. Our food is packed with them, particularly naturally occurring substances that plants produce to ward off pests. If the microscopic quantities of carcinogens in our carpets and on our clothes left by tobacco smoke are going to be treated as a potential health threat, that makes every cup of coffee a caffeinated, cancer-causing cocktail, too.

If the chemicals in cigarette smoke were really so deadly as Winickoff and Glantz imply, it would be simply inconceivable that people could live – as many do for 50 years or more – while smoking a packet of cigarettes or more every day. It usually takes decades of effort directly polluting the body with tobacco smoke before someone becomes seriously ill because of it. The idea that a whiff of smoke in the air, or a thin coat of smoky tar on the walls, can put us in mortal danger is just laughable. Or, at least, it would be if the health authorities weren’t so keen to pounce upon each new study as a justification for ever-greater restrictions on lighting up.

Anti-smoking is hypochondria-by-proxy, an obsessive compulsive disorder whose sufferers demand that the normal pastimes of others leave them under attack. Contrary to what Winickoff says, it is anti-smoking campaigners and our health guardians who need help – to quit their disgusting, illiberal, interfering, busybody habit once and for all.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

David Bowden discussed Labour’s attitude to smoking. Mick Hume bemoaned the changed view of smokers and quitting. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said the anti-smoking lobby is McCarthyist. Basham and Luik opposed the second-hand smoke laws in New York City. Christopher Snowdon examined the relationship between smoking restrictions and heart attack rates. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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