The medical journal Pediatrics rang in 2009 with sobering news about cigarettes: Even those who smoke outside to spare loved ones from secondhand smoke do them another disservice. So-called third-hand smoke, the residue of toxic cigarette ingredients, clings to smokers’ hair and clothing long after they snuff out the cigarette. For parents, that means picking up or hugging their children could contaminate them with the likes of hydrogen cyanide, butane, arsenic, and polonium-210, according to the study, led by Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff. A New York Times story about the study pointed out that polonium-210 is the same substance “used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006.”
“Smokers have a right to breathe in those 4,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, and nonsmokers have a right not to,” says Danny McGoldrick, vice-president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C.
No one’s rights are more relevant than those of children, who have little means to protect themselves from their parents’ hazardous habits. It should be illegal for parents to smoke, period.
And it’s not as though there isn’t already plenty of evidence about the way secondhand smoke endangers the children of smokers. According to the Surgeon General’s findings, secondhand smoke harms children by, among other things: causing bronchitis and pneumonia, aggravating the effects of asthma, and increasing the likelihood of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported that childhood exposure to tobacco smoke may lead to the development of cancers during adulthood.
Finally, with the recession upon us and apparently here to stay, spending money on a non-necessity is hardly prudent. In New York City, federal, state, and city taxes inflate the cost of cigarettes to $8 a pack. That means two-pack-a-day smokers are sucking $480 a month out of the family exchequer.
Instead, parents should avail themselves of help from any of the numerous free anti-smoking programs or over-the-counter products to help them wean themselves off cigarettes. Have you ever heard of anyone who regretted quitting smoking or setting a good example for a child?
Why is everyone so quick to believe this slight evidence about “third-hand smoke,” and what makes smoking any worse than parents’ other bad behavior?
“A lot of smokers are happy about this third-hand smoke report, because it shows what ridiculous lengths antismoking people will go to,” says Dave Hitt, a smoker who created the opinion site the Hittman Chronicle (www.davehitt.com). “The study was nothing more than a phone survey on what people believe is harmful. The stuff used to kill the Russian spy, the polonium, was a huge dose—you’d have to have a baby licking the floor clean every day for 267 billion years to equal it.”
George Koodray sees the third-hand smoke report as just another excuse for selective finger-pointing. “I find it somewhat hard to believe that your body could discern ‘third-hand smoke’ from all the bad substances you find in carpet and clothing and the air,” says Koodray, who serves as New Jersey state coordinator of the Smokers Club. “Back when secondhand smoke was all the rage, I’d see people jogging for their health right next to eight lanes of highway traffic. I think the effect of secondhand smoke pales in comparison to a lot of the things we’re exposed to.”
Furthermore, smoking in general doesn’t qualify as an immediate fatal threat. It takes years or even an entire lifetime to acquire cancer or emphysema from smoking, while one bad fall on an all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle can mean serious injury or death. Why not make it illegal for parents to introduce these sports to their kids? And how about outlawing parental consumption of alcohol while we’re at it? Unlike alcohol, cigarettes have never been linked to domestic violence.
It’s about time to stop persecuting smokers, period. In October 2008 a state trooper arrested a Long Island woman for the misdemeanor charge of tax evasion after she bought five cartons of cigarettes at the Cayuga Indian Reservation. The cigarettes were for herself; she purchased them at the reservation to save money and bought them in volume to save on gas.
Smokers make an easy target for finger pointing, and parents are always quick to cast stones at other parents, hoping their own foibles will be overlooked amid the rock-throwing.
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