Friday, January 09, 2009

I am a Smoke-Free Zone

If you have watched or read the news in the last couple of days, there's no doubt that you chanced across the new findings released by the journal Pediatrics that have concluded the ignorance of the masses to the harmfulness of "third-hand smoke," particularly to infants and children, and by extension, preganant women.  The recent study concludes that most smokers have not yet recognized the harmfulness of third-hand smoke, and their attempts at protecting children from second-hand smoke actually fall short of truly protecting their still-developing lungs from the toxins released by cigarettes.

The actual third-hand smoke research came out in 2004, but it was this new study that coined the term third-hand smoke to represent the toxins that collect in the dust, the air, the clothing and hair, and the furniture of smokers.  It is the "smell" you detect after your smoking colleagues come back from their collective smoke break, the scent that lingers on your clothes after a night at the smoky bar, and the weird yellowy colour that you notice on the furniture of your smoking relatives.  That is the third-hand smoke to which the term refers, and that is what infants and children are exposed to, in spite of the best efforts of smokers in their lives to keep them from it.  The carcinogenic toxins in the third-hand smoke have, according to the studies, been linked to things such as lower IQ, cognitive deficits (like lower reading scores!), and cancer risks, to name a few.

I won't get into the details of the studies, since a simple "google" search will yield large numbers of returns on the topic.  However, as I have been following these news articles and reading them online, I've noticed a substantial number of vitriolic comments criticizing or rejecting the findings released by Pediatrics as well as by Prof. Georg Matt of the original 2004 study.  An equal number of responses from the non-smoking camp defending these studies and condemning smokers have turned simple online news articles into battle zones between the pro- and anti-smoking groups.

The truth is, nobody can force anyone to quit smoking.  It is a personal decision based on a number of variables specific to an individual.  Patrick Swayze told Barbara Walters just the other night that despite his very malignant and aggressive pancreatic cancer, he can't kick his cigarette habit.  Obviously for him, even the threat of death isn't a compelling enough reason to nix the smokes.  My dad quit the moment he realized how badly my bro's asthma was.  For him, that was the last straw, but prior to that he probably had no idea that the second-hand smoke his daughters had been breathing in for the last decade of their lives was harming them, too!  

I am a huge proponent of educating the public, and of further longitudinal investigations into the effects of smoke exposure on children.  Personally, though I know that a handful of studies will likely be insufficient evidence for a smoker to quit, I believe that a large number of studies concluding the same thing might actually offer a pretty strong case for getting rid of the vice. 

In the meantime, however, I believe that we non-smokers have the responsibility of protecting ourselves (and our children) from smoke exposure.  Though we may not have a choice as to whether people around us smoke or not, we certainly have a choice about where we go and how long we stay.  If we are convinced that we want to give our kids every chance at physical and intellectual health, then we will make the decision to keep them (and ourselves) from being unnecessarily exposed to toxins that might endanger us.  If we keep ourselves educated about the issue, we can be armed with the logical rationale for our behaviour, even if it seems a bit extreme to those around us.**

The answer does not lie in "converting" others with our arguments, because it is a waste of time to try to change someone who is unwilling to change.  However, the answer (in part, anyway) does lie in offering a solid case for non-smoking and in helping others to be aware of the effects of their behaviour.  

Anyway, that's my two cents on the issue.

**I do not mean extreme in the truly extreme fashion.  In no way do I advocate raising kids in a bubble; kids need to eat dirt and play outside and do kid things so that they can build confidence and curiosity as they explore their world.  I do mean extreme as in avoiding restaurants that allow smoking in the dining room (or at all!), and in choosing playgroups with non-smokers.  I do mean not allowing baby-sitters who are smokers to sit for my children, and insisting on a no-smoking policy in my home and my vehicle.