Friday, February 19, 2010

The Invention of Thirdhand Smoke

Last year, Massachusetts pediatrician Jonathan Winickoff and his colleagues invented the notion of “thirdhand smoke,” which they defined as “residual tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette is extinguished.” Winickoff described thirdhand smoke as particles and volatile compounds that cover every surface of a smoker’s home, exposing people to toxic agents for “days, weeks or months.”

Winickoff sought to prove the existence of thirdhand smoke. He analyzed a survey of about 1,500 American adults called the "Social Climate Survey of Tobacco Control"; he described this as “an annual cross-sectional survey that was designed to operationalize the concept of the social climate on tobacco into a comprehensive set of quantifiable social and environmental indicators across social institutions that characterize society.” In plain English: “a survey designed to demonize tobacco and its users in every facet of society.” Winickoff published his results in the journal Pediatrics.

Survey participants were asked whether they agreed with this statement: “Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” Six out of ten participants agreed, so Winickoff declared thirdhand smoke a reality.

Winickoff was brazenly honest about why this “notion” or “concept” (his words) was developed. “Emphasizing that thirdhand smoke harms the health of children may be an important element in encouraging home smoking bans. Health messages about thirdhand smoke contamination could be easily incorporated into current tobacco control campaigns, programs, and routine clinical practice.”

I have described the evolution of thirdhand smoke from a notion to an established fact. It gets worse. Next week I’ll describe a new, largely hypothetical toxicology study claiming that nicotine residues in thirdhand smoke are being theoretically transformed into dangerous chemicals.

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