Thursday 9 May 2019

The thirdhand smoke gravy train

You shouldn't

Now that the ISIS caliphate has fallen, California has regained the number one spot as the place that is more opposed to the Enlightenment than anywhere else in the world. Like ISIS, Beverly Hills is banning the sale of tobacco and has an insanely draconian smoking ban...

Beverly Hills already has strict regulations on how people smoke. Doing so while standing still, for example, is illegal — if you're going to smoke, you must be walking and continuously moving.

There is a suggestion that parts of California want to ban tobacco sales as a way of banning e-cigarettes, about which hysteria has reached new heights this year. That would certainly be its effect, thanks to US agencies ludicrously defining vaping products as tobacco products.

Facts and science have long been treated with suspicion in the Golden State. I don't know who the woman below is, but she was allowed to give 'evidence' to Beverly Hills city council yesterday in the prohibition debate (where a ban on tobacco sales was passed unanimously). She appears to believe in homeopathy.

She mentions the website and I would echo her advice to visit it. It's hilarious. Amongst its comic charms are such articles as 'How my grandfather's cigar damaged his possessions' which explains the basic idea:

Objects that have spent time in the home of someone who smokes are contaminated with thirdhand smoke pollution. Even when there is nothing you can see or smell, items can still be covered with toxic tobacco smoke residue.

Thirdhand smoke residue is sticky, and it stays around for years. It’s also aggressive—it doesn’t simply stay on the object, but it mixes with the air and forms even more toxic substances. Thirdhand smoke can stick to large items in your home, such as furniture, rugs, and window curtains. But it can also stick to other smaller items, such as toys, books, stuffed animals, throw pillows, and television remotes.  When we use the objects, we get exposed to the toxic residue and help spread the thirdhand smoke inside our home because it gets on our skin, hair, and clothing. 

The website promises to provide 'summaries of important research studies related to thirdhand smoke and its effects on human health'. Alas, the 'effects on human health' do not get a look-in (because they are non-existent). Instead, it provides a list of places where trace levels of nicotine have been found, including houses, casinos and hotel rooms.

The whole thing seems designed to appeal to California's legion of hypochondriacs. In the FAQs, smokers are advised to strip, shower and wash their clothes after every cigarette:

When outdoor smokers come inside, the odor they emit is not simply a nuisance. The tobacco smoke odor we smell is a direct sign that a mixture of odorant and odorless tobacco smoke pollutants has been brought into the home on the clothes, skin, hair, and in the exhaled breath of the smoker. Inside the home, the pollutants off-gas into the air, and nonsmokers are now exposed to them through inhalation. In addition, some of these compounds will now adsorb, deposit, and accumulate in the indoor environment even though no cigarettes were smoked indoors. There are three main strategies for preventing tobacco smoke pollutants from clothes and on persons from entering and building up in a home

1) Leave clothes worn while smoking outside the home (e.g., patio, garage).
2) Immediately wash clothes worn while smoking.
3) Ask smokers to wash their hands and shower immediately upon entering the home.

The website is the creation of Georg Matt. Long term readers will recall him as the psychologist who invented the concept of thirdhand smoke in the first place. 'Thirdhand smoke' isn't smoke and it isn't remotely dangerous. It is just the residue of old smoke that you might see on the yellow wallpaper of a heavy smoker.

Way back in 2004, Matt started looking for nicotine and cotinine on household surfaces using highly sensitive instruments. Unsurprisingly, he found more of these substances in the homes of smokers who claimed to smoke outside than in the homes of nonsmokers. But in every case, the nicotine concentrations were tiny. The bedrooms of nonsmokers had nicotine concentrations of 0.09 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) whilst the children of smokers had concentrations of 0.22 μg/m3.

To provide some perspective, an air nicotine concentration of 50μg/m3 would not be uncommon in a bar which allows smoking and the legal limit of workplace exposure in the US is 500 μg/m3.

Matt wrote this up for the journal-comic Tobacco Control and everybody ignored it until the silly season of August 2006 when Matt gave it another media push and generated headlines such as 'Even smoking outside can harm your baby'.

But he had not yet coined the killer term 'thirdhand smoke'. That didn't happen until in 2009 when he published a study with Jonathan Winickoff. The sly genius of that piece of junk science was that it avoided the tricky task of showing that thirdhand smoke presents the slightest danger to health by simply assuming that it does. The study itself was no more than a survey asking people whether they agreed with the following statement:

“Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.”

65.2% of nonsmokers agreed, as did 43.3% of smokers. Matt and his team also found that people who agreed with the statement were more likely to ban smoking in their home. They therefore concluded that...

Emphasizing that thirdhand smoke harms the health of children may be an important element in encouraging home smoking bans.

The study did not show that thirdhand smoke actually does harm the health of children - because there was no evidence for that - but the study was published with a suitably incendiary press release and the media fell into line. The BBC, for example, reported it as follows:

Many people are unaware that even smoking away from babies or pregnant women presents a risk, according to US research.
Poisons in cigarette smoke can linger on fabrics or hair, but a survey of 1,500 households found that fewer than half of smokers knew this.

You almost have to admire the feral cunning required to pull off this trick. As I said at the time:

It was a masterstroke by Georg Matt and his team. Their greatest weakness was that thirdhand smoke was almost universally unrecognised even as a concept. Worse still, it had not one shred of evidence to support it. Ingeniously, they turned these weaknesses into their strengths. Like the tailors who made the emperor's new clothes, the authors dared the media to admit that they were ignorant of thirdhand smoke and, winning the bluff, blasted the idea into the public consciousness.

The concept of thirdhand smoke was clearly invented to encourage people to stop smoking in their own homes. In truth, it has never really taken off, even among anti-smoking groups like ASH, because most people intuitively know that it is preposterous. The exception is on the West Coast of America where people will believe almost anything. As a result, Matt has carved himself a nice little niche in San Diego where he has continued to produce study after study mining this seam of woo.

And now, thanks to the absolute state of California, he has hit the jackpot.

First Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center in Nation Opens at San Diego State University

The dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke have long been studied, but now the nation’s first public resource center on thirdhand smoke has opened up right here in San Diego.

Researchers with San Diego State University and the University of Southern California opened the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center on the former’s campus Wednesday.

“There’s a big illusion that when tobacco smoke disappears, we’re safe,” said SDSU psychology professor and director of the resource center, Georg Matt. “Unfortunately, some of the most toxic compounds clinch to surfaces. They get embedded in carpets, they coat walls, they penetrate into walls. They become part of the indoor environment.”

 Needless to say...

The Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center is funded by revenues from a cigarette tax increase approved by California voters in 2016.

Matt has goldplated his theory over the years, moving from an unwarranted assumption that a room is dangerous if someone smoked in it the previous day to the utterly deranged assumption that a room is dangerous if someone smoked, vaped or used chewing tobacco in it weeks, months or years earlier. And yet, if you dig into the FAQs, you will find this crucial admission...

Currently, there is very little information on the unique health effects of THS because research on THS and health have only recently begun.

Only just begun? It's been fifteen years and there is still not a scintilla of evidence that human health is harmed by proximity to a smoker's old armchair.

Still, this new smoker-funded gravy train should provide enough money for Georg Matt to keep carrying out 'research' for the rest of his pointless career.

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