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Stogie Commentary: Risky Business, This Smoking Inquiry

6 Nov 2007

A few weeks ago I was reading a story in the New York Times about the difficulty smokers face trying to light up at airports, not unlike what Patrick A experienced this summer in Charlotte. Near the end I came across this quote from Matthew McKenna, director of the Center for Disease Control’s office on smoking and health: “There’s no level of secondhand smoke exposure that can be declared to be safe.”

Second-hand smoke warningNow, like you, I had seen similar statements before. This time, though, I started wondering exactly what it meant. I seem to recall from covering the anthrax attack on Capitol Hill, dirty bomb scares, and other terrorism-related reporting that the government had established acceptable levels of exposure for all sorts of deadly substances. Could secondhand smoke be any worse?

I thought, of course, about the seemingly ubiquitous presence of lead paint on children’s toys. The government permits 600 parts per million. According to the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, studies have shown that at that level it can lower a child’s IQ by five points; the American Academy of Pediatrics wants a standard of 40 parts per million. And Leonhardt quoted a university psychologist that “no one has ever found any evidence of a threshold below which lead has no effect.”

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? I’m glad the government took immediate action at the first instance of thousands of lead-tainted toys coming to U.S. store shelves from China. At least we never have to worry about that again. Oh, wait, I guess maybe that didn’t happen…

I found the good doctor’s email address on the CDC’s site and wrote to him. I asked whether there were any other elements or substances that “the government has declared to have no safe level of exposure?”

I was pleased to receive a reply, but disappointed to see that Dr. McKenna had passed my inquiry off to a flack. He repeated information from a 2006 report on the dangers of secondhand smoke but completely dodged my question. I tried again.

This time he said it wasn’t possible to compare secondhand smoke to other substances or elements. OK, I don’t really buy that, but I kept my mule plowing ahead. I refined my question, now asking whether secondhand smoke was “the only smoke for which the government position is that there is no level of exposure that can be declared safe?” I pointed out that I had read EPA estimates that a fireplace burning ten pounds of wood in an hour would generate 4,300 times more carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons than 30 cigarettes.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember when people used to burn logs in their fireplaces at home. I’m glad the government finally moved to eliminate that widespread cancer-causing activity. Oh, wait, I guess…

The CDC reply this time more or less blew me off and referred me to the EPA.

Getting Closer to an Answer

That’s where I went. I asked again whether secondhand smoke was the only smoke for which the government position is that there is no level of safe exposure.

Guess what? I got a very reasoned, thorough reply from someone in the EPA’s Health and Environmental Impacts Division. He pointed out a couple of things, including the fact that the EPA doesn’t really have anything to do with tobacco smoke, since it doesn’t have an industrial source.

He also noted that he wasn’t sure what Dr. McKenna meant, though it was true that “no level of secondhand smoke exposure could be considered ‘risk-free,’ or correspond to ‘zero risk’…because it is considered to be a ‘linear carcinogen,’ meaning that each incremental breath of exposure adds to one’s lifetime risk of contracting cancer…”

But he added that if a non-smoker who lives in a virtually smoke-free environment were “to increase their exposure to secondhand smoke by, say, spending an hour or a day or even a week in the home of a smoker breathing their secondhand smoke, this would not likely result in any significant increase in their lifetime probability of contracting cancer. It would definitely increase their risk (above zero), but it would probably not increase it enough that the EPA would consider it ‘unsafe’ by our usual interpretation.”

He also patiently explained that the EPA regulates 187 different hazardous air pollutants, “many of which are considered to be ‘linear carcinogens’” like secondhand smoke. To do that, he explained, the agency assesses the increased cancer risk for those who breathe the emissions.

When they “are exposed to increased cancer risks less than 1 in a million, EPA considers those to be negligible and will not pursue any further regulation…” He also pointed out that “‘negligible risk’ does not equal ‘zero risk’…”

The Bottom Line

So, while I still don’t have an answer to my original question, I do have a little more insight into the statement that started all this and the context in which it is presented: The fact that the risk is not zero means there is risk. If there is risk, then it is accurate to say that there is no safe level of exposure.

We just won’t mention the fact that there are hundreds, probably thousands, of other elements, substances, smokes, etc., about which the same can be said. In fact, for many of them, we’ll even set a government standard for exposure, despite the likelihood that it will mislead at least some people into believing exposure at that level is “safe” or “zero risk” when that isn’t at all true.

Sounds a little like a smokescreen, doesn’t it?

George E

Tags: cigars

Drew Estate

7 Responses to “Stogie Commentary: Risky Business, This Smoking Inquiry”

  1. Newfield Tuesday, November 6, 2007 at 4:29 am #

    This is really impressive first-hand reporting. Thank you, George, for taking a break from journalistic retirement to put together this valuable piece.

    It's easy to see why StogieGuys is on Google News…

  2. Mac and Nudo Tuesday, November 6, 2007 at 5:34 am #

    Many thanks for this telling post.

    It's becoming very clear that the government's heavy-handed policies towards secondhand smoke are based more on fuzzy science and a distaste for smokers than a sincere concern for the public health.

  3. John Tuesday, November 6, 2007 at 5:41 am #

    George, I hope you treated yourself to the most voluminous smoke-producing stogie you could get your hands on after sparring with U.S. government bureaucracies. And, that as a responsible smoker, you pointed out the risk to anyone nearby who may have been exposed to your puffing.

  4. timothy fitzgerald Tuesday, November 6, 2007 at 4:45 pm #

    really great article and way to try and get a decent answer. my lungs are worse from working at owens corning yrs ago and other plants while in construction. i was once told being arround this certain chemical we were working arround killed rats. i wanted to know how big the rats were lol. myself or no one else on the job would sign the release they wanted us to sign. they had a part per million they thought we could take.

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