Remember Dr Jonathan Winickoff? Early last year, he staked his claim as a rising star of quackademia by popularising the phantom menace of thirdhand smoke using nothing more than a phone survey.
Would you stop smoking if you believed that toxins clung to your clothes and killed your children? You would? Cool! In that case, thirdhand smoke exists—let's send a press release; the BBC and the Daily Mail will fall for it.
That's about the level of this guy's scientific integrity.
This utter, utter junk science was designed to further the 'next logical step' of banning smoking in the home and now, 18 months on, Winickoff has got down to brass tacks and published a call-to-arms in the New England Journal of Medicine.
As is happening with terrifying regularity these days, the whole study is beyond parody. Basically, he wants smoking banned in all public housing on the basis that deadly levels of secondhand smoke travel down air vents and through walls. This is a man for whom 'the dose makes the poison' means absolutely nothing. (But then Winickoff's a paediatrician, not a toxicologist; his two co-authors—Michelle Mello and Mark Gottlieb—are both lawyers.)
The very fact that this garbage has been published in a respected journal like the NEJM is too depressing for words, but a few things about its basic premise need to be mentioned.
A resident who smokes in a single unit within a multiunit residential building puts the residents of the other units at risk.
This is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Just two references are provided to support it. One points to the Surgeon General's report Children and Secondhand Smoke Exposure. The other is a transcript of a Surgeon General's press conference on the same subject. Both encourage parents not to smoke in the home (for the sake of the children), but neither of them make any scientific claim that smokers in one apartment harm people in surrounding homes.
Tobacco smoke can move along air ducts, through cracks in the walls and floors, through elevator shafts, and along plumbing and electrical lines to affect units on other floors.
How can the NEJM print such rubbish?
Firstly, if you have a crack in the wall big enough to let in air from next door, you have bigger problems to worry about that secondhand smoke.
Secondly, air ducts don't carry air from apartment to apartment, they take air in and out of the building. Likewise the plumbing.
Thirdly, tobacco smoke coming down electrical lines? We really are in the realms of the insane now, are we not? Last month, Smokles ran a contest to find "the most ludicrous article to appear in an anti-tobacco journal in the next 6 months." I submitted the following:
Toxins from cigarettes can be transmitted down phone lines
That's got to be close enough, no? Gentlemen, I claim my five dollars.
Winickoff gives three references here: this, this and this. None of them support his claims about cracks in the walls, electrical lines or anything else.
High levels of tobacco toxins can persist in the indoor environment long after the period of active smoking — a phenomenon known as third-hand smoke.
This is bullshit of Winickoff's own making and, of course, he provides a reference to his own phone survey study as evidence (this is how 'overwhelming' evidence accumulates—see Glantz). He also refers to the Georg Matt study and two other studies. None of these papers suggest that lingering tobacco toxins ever reach "high levels"—on the contrary, they are infinitesimally low—and none of them discuss secondhand smoke travelling between apartments.
These are the key statements upon which Winickoff hangs his case. There is not a shred of evidence for any of them. Isn't the peer-review process supposed to check these things?