The Sky Is Not Falling (Over ventilatie)

by Jim St John
May 11, 2004

Over the last 15 years the tobacco prohibitionist cartel—with millions in funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other pharmaceutical interests—has been highly successful in scaring the hell out of the general public about exposure to “secondhand smoke”.  They’ve turned America into a flock of “Chicken Littles” who believe in fairy tales that the sky is falling anywhere someone lights up in public.  That perception is now a reality we often encounter where smoking is permitted indoors.

This and future postings will be about indoor air quality—the facts and the myths.  The observations and suggestions are based on 25 years of experience in indoor air quality engineering for all kinds of residential and commercial environments…and lots of real-world experience abating tobacco smoke in homes and businesses.

Before we talk about the mechanical stuff, we gotta talk first about what is in the air, how much if it there is, and what we’re going to call it.  The prohibitionists prefer the pejorative term “secondhand smoke”.  Alternatively, decades ago someone coined the term “environmental tobacco smoke” or ETS.  ETS takes up less bandwidth, so that’s what we’ll use on this page.

ETS is an aerosol of particulates, liquid droplets and gas-phase vapors, the composition of which changes rapidly as it cools and dilutes.  Because the particulates range in size from barely visible to invisible submicron size, they can build up in poorly ventilated rooms and can remain as respirable suspended particulates (RSP) for long periods of time.  That’s how we get the smoky haze that irritates non-smokers and even smokers themselves sometimes, and that’s what gives ammo to tobacco-haters.

The prohibitionists, including billionaire bully New York City Mayor Bloomberg, have a habit of broadcasting bizarre exaggerations about how many “cigarette equivalents” a bartender will inhale at work…anywhere from two to four unfiltered packs per shift.  At two packs per shift, that means the bartender sucks down the equivalent of a cigarette every 12 minutes!  Huh?  This is one of the big fat lies about ETS, the result of statistical manipulation by drug-funded anti-tobacco activist researchers, communicated to us by lazy and compliant news media.

For a long time it has been known that restaurant and bar workers are exposed to approximately 1/1000 of what the prohibitionists claim.  Of course, such a finding was probably funded by the tobacco industry, right?  Wrong.  In 1975, Harvard researchers undertook air sampling measurements in smoking-permitted workplaces, with funding from the Massachusetts Lung Association.  Professor Emeritus Melvin First wrote about it in a May 2003 letter to the Wall Street Journal:

In regard to your May 16 story “Passive Smoke Doesn’t Kill – Or Does It?”:  James Enstroms’s finding that exposure to environmental smoke cannot be associated with increased risk of cancer and heart disease comes as no surprise to me as I authored, with a colleague, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (292:844-845, 1975) detailing the results of inconspicuous air samplings at restaurants, cocktail lounges, transportation terminals, etc. “to evaluate the health implications for non-smokers” and found that the concentrations of tobacco smoke were equivalent to smoking about .004 cigarettes per hour while in these facilities.  It should be recalled that smoking in public places was normal and prevalent a quarter century ago.

Nor am I surprised at the scurrilous responses of the concerned voluntary health associations.  Publication of the paper cited above resulted in many angry voices on the phone wanting to learn the funding source, although it was noted that it was funded “by the Massachusetts Lung Association and its local affiliates.”  That is another interesting tale – the Lung Association put our report in a drawer and never released it.  It is also curious that none of the surgeon general’s reports ever mentioned this study.

Nor am I surprised that an attempt is being made to trash Dr. Enstrom’s conclusions because the study was funded in part by money from tobacco interests.  Does this mean that all the researchers funded by anti-smoking agencies are biased in the opposite direction?  I trust not.  Such charges are deeply insulting to academics in good standing.

For the record I am a non-smoker and as a responsible health professional I do not advocate smoking.”

Melvin W. First, Sc. D.
Professor of Environmental
Health and Engineering, Emeritus
Harvard School of Public Health
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Since that time, similar studies have come to the same conclusion, most of them funded all or in part by the tobacco industry.  The reason for this is obvious: the tobacco industry liked the results that could be duplicated without fudging the numbers.  The anti-smoking industry, and the pharmaceutical companies that support their activities, will never again conduct atmospheric sampling studies supported by lab science because the results aren’t scary at all.  Instead, prohibitionists rely on statistical estimates of exposure, based on measurements of sidestream vs mainstream smoke, and inflating the numbers into a bloated statistical model that has no real world evidence to back it up.  But their strategy of “science by press release” serves them quite well.  Who needs facts when hungry news outlets gobble up their scary stories?

The bottom line is that with no extraordinary ventilation or air filtration, bar and restaurant workers inhale less than four one-hundredths of a cigarette per eight-hour shift, well below the EPA’s claimed three-per day threshold of risk.

When we get into social and political conversations about the alleged ETS health risk to workers and the general public, air sampling studies should always be on the table, and given much more weight than epidemiological statistical fiddling by anti-tobacco activists.  People who smoke need not feel guilty that they are complicit in “killing” workers and others in public places.  Proprietors and employers need not fall back on libertarian arguments to justify exposing employees and customers to allegedly dangerous levels of ETS–because that is not the fact of the matter.  Nobody is being killed.  But common sense dictates that business operators be smart and take measures to reduce the perception of hazard, which is the political reality.

Next week, we’ll start looking at ways to manage both the perception and the reality of indoor air quality.  In the meantime, you might be interested in these two articles published in Pacific Northwest daily newpapers:

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  • "Es ist schwieriger, eine vorgefaßte Meinung zu zertrümmern als ein Atom."
    (Het is moeilijker een vooroordeel aan flarden te schieten dan een atoom.)
    Albert Einstein

  • "Als je alles zou laten dat slecht is voor je gezondheid, dan ging je kapot"
    Anonieme arts

  • "The effects of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn't worry me."
    Sir Richard Doll, 2001

  • "Een leugen wordt de waarheid als hij maar vaak genoeg wordt herhaald"
    Joseph Goebbels, Minister van Propaganda, Nazi Duitsland

  • "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
    Mahatma Gandhi

  • "There''s no such thing as perfect air. If there was, God wouldn''t have put bristles in our noses"
    Coun. Bill Clement

  • "Better a smoking freedom than a non-smoking tyranny"
    Antonio Martino, Italiaanse Minister van Defensie

  • "If smoking cigars is not permitted in heaven, I won't go."
    Mark Twain

  • I've alllllllways said that asking smokers "do you want to quit?" and reporting the results of that question, as is, is horribly misleading. It's a TWO part question. After asking if one wants to quit it must be followed up with "Why?" Ask why and the majority of the answers will be "because I'm supposed to" (victims of guilt and propaganda), not "because I want to."
    Audrey Silk, NYCCLASH