All countries have been known to periodically lose their minds. France in 1789 banned religion by the point of a blade, Russia in 1917 banned freedom by the barrel of a gun, and China in the later half of the twentieth century began its rigorous program of banning life itself for a good many of its citizens (both before and after it had begun).
The US of A is no exception to insanity, for in 1920 the country wrote into its very foundation a ban on alcohol. American was not to the only land to bar booze, of course, but it was there the effects of proscription were most spectacular.
Notice that all these lapses into madness happened some while ago, time enough for memories to grow dim—and time for the forces of nuttiness to regain strength. As appears to be happening with the movement against smoking.
Iceland, for instance, has declared cigarettes a drug, and citizens now need a physician’s prescription to smoke. Elsewhere, smokers receive the kinds of looks once reserved for lepers.
Everybody knows that smoking cigarettes regularly often leads to poor health. People think they know that merely standing by a smoker will cause them to fall into poor health. This is “think they know” because what they know isn’t necessarily so.
The evidence of the effects of “second-hand” smoke is weak and exaggerated—much as were the effects of drinking a century ago. Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition reminds us that many white-coated doctors used to claim that any drink, no matter how small, was bad news for the body, thus it should be banned.
There is a kind of logic in disparaging second-hand smoke. Smoke if you want, but don’t you dare endanger others! The problem is that some claim, via poorly made statistical arguments, that second-hand smoke is just as evil as first-hand smoke. Many must feel the exaggerations they make fall within the “better safe than sorry” category.
Yet these arguments, poor as they were, convinced, and the battle over second-hand smoke was won—bans are in place nearly everywhere lest smokers contaminate the pure. So what does a military do after beating the enemy? It either demobilizes or it seeks new enemies to conquer.
Militant doctors chose the latter option and have invented the category of “third-hand smoke.” This is the smoke that is transfered to innocent third parties (and places) from people who do not smoke themselves, but who were, however briefly, in the presence of a smoker. Make sense?
It does to an anti-tobacco crusader with the Dickensian name of Winickoff, who lead wrote a peer-reviewed article in Pediatrics entitled, “Beliefs About the Health Effects of ‘Thirdhand’ Smoke and Home Smoking Bans.” Notice the favorite word of zealots appears.
No attempt is made by Winickoff et al. to prove the horribleness of third-hand smoke in this paper; it’s evilness is taken for granted. He merely wants to see if others believe as fervently as he does. Understand: this article is just a survey of civilians and their opinions of third-hand smoke.
I flatter myself that I am somewhat informed about the important matters of the day, plus I have been working in and around hospitals these last eight years, but I had never heard of so-called third-hand smoke until last week. Thus I suspect that many or most of those Winickoff surveyed had no prior knowledge of this subject.
Winickoff apparently also thinks so and instead asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” He uses agreement with this how-can-you-answer-anything-but-yes question as confirmation the person “believes” in third-hand smoke.
Thus loading his dice and, after tossing and—quelle surprise!—making his number, Winickoff begins by telling us that “Of 2000 eligible respondents contacted, 1510 (87%) completed surveys” and 61% of those who answered agree third-hand smoke is bad, and 93% that second-hand smoke is bad. (I’ll let the reader confirm the math.)
He then inputed his numbers into a weighted “multiple logistic regression model” which spit out many small p-values to the effect that, yes, those that hated third-hand smoke were likely not smoke in rooms that might later be occupied by children. Conclusion: third-hand smoke is bad, especially for the children!
But there can be no quod erat demonstrandum because nothing was proved; indeed, nothing was asserted. Strangely, he calls this finding “novel.” But, ever weirder, he could not confirm that “belief” in second-hand smoke was associated with people not smoking around children.
Winickoff is thus claiming that people fret about third-hand smoke, but not second-hand smoke. The statistics tell him this is so. Onward marches science!
Although it isn’t relevant, I do not smoke cigarettes and never have. Nor I have ever received money or any consideration from any tobacco company, or, to my knowledge, any of their affiliates. Whereas Doc Winickoff has received plenty of bucks to express his view.
I was unable to locate Winickoff’s email and could not offer him a chance for rebuttal.
Thanks to reader Brad Tittle for bringing this subject to my attention.