The Horrible Dangers Of Third-Hand Smoke

Mark Twain smokingAll countries have been known to periodically lose their minds. France in 1789 banned religion by the point of a blade, Russia in 1917 banned freedom by the barrel of a gun, and China in the later half of the twentieth century began its rigorous program of banning life itself for a good many of its citizens (both before and after it had begun).

The US of A is no exception to insanity, for in 1920 the country wrote into its very foundation a ban on alcohol. American was not to the only land to bar booze, of course, but it was there the effects of proscription were most spectacular.

Notice that all these lapses into madness happened some while ago, time enough for memories to grow dim—and time for the forces of nuttiness to regain strength. As appears to be happening with the movement against smoking.

Iceland, for instance, has declared cigarettes a drug, and citizens now need a physician’s prescription to smoke. Elsewhere, smokers receive the kinds of looks once reserved for lepers.

Everybody knows that smoking cigarettes regularly often leads to poor health. People think they know that merely standing by a smoker will cause them to fall into poor health. This is “think they know” because what they know isn’t necessarily so.

The evidence of the effects of “second-hand” smoke is weak and exaggerated—much as were the effects of drinking a century ago. Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition reminds us that many white-coated doctors used to claim that any drink, no matter how small, was bad news for the body, thus it should be banned.

There is a kind of logic in disparaging second-hand smoke. Smoke if you want, but don’t you dare endanger others! The problem is that some claim, via poorly made statistical arguments, that second-hand smoke is just as evil as first-hand smoke. Many must feel the exaggerations they make fall within the “better safe than sorry” category.

Yet these arguments, poor as they were, convinced, and the battle over second-hand smoke was won—bans are in place nearly everywhere lest smokers contaminate the pure. So what does a military do after beating the enemy? It either demobilizes or it seeks new enemies to conquer.

Militant doctors chose the latter option and have invented the category of “third-hand smoke.” This is the smoke that is transfered to innocent third parties (and places) from people who do not smoke themselves, but who were, however briefly, in the presence of a smoker. Make sense?

It does to an anti-tobacco crusader with the Dickensian name of Winickoff, who lead wrote a peer-reviewed article in Pediatrics entitled, “Beliefs About the Health Effects of ‘Thirdhand’ Smoke and Home Smoking Bans.” Notice the favorite word of zealots appears.

No attempt is made by Winickoff et al. to prove the horribleness of third-hand smoke in this paper; it’s evilness is taken for granted. He merely wants to see if others believe as fervently as he does. Understand: this article is just a survey of civilians and their opinions of third-hand smoke.

I flatter myself that I am somewhat informed about the important matters of the day, plus I have been working in and around hospitals these last eight years, but I had never heard of so-called third-hand smoke until last week. Thus I suspect that many or most of those Winickoff surveyed had no prior knowledge of this subject.

Winickoff apparently also thinks so and instead asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” He uses agreement with this how-can-you-answer-anything-but-yes question as confirmation the person “believes” in third-hand smoke.

Thus loading his dice and, after tossing and—quelle surprise!—making his number, Winickoff begins by telling us that “Of 2000 eligible respondents contacted, 1510 (87%) completed surveys” and 61% of those who answered agree third-hand smoke is bad, and 93% that second-hand smoke is bad. (I’ll let the reader confirm the math.)

He then inputed his numbers into a weighted “multiple logistic regression model” which spit out many small p-values to the effect that, yes, those that hated third-hand smoke were likely not smoke in rooms that might later be occupied by children. Conclusion: third-hand smoke is bad, especially for the children!

But there can be no quod erat demonstrandum because nothing was proved; indeed, nothing was asserted. Strangely, he calls this finding “novel.” But, ever weirder, he could not confirm that “belief” in second-hand smoke was associated with people not smoking around children.

Winickoff is thus claiming that people fret about third-hand smoke, but not second-hand smoke. The statistics tell him this is so. Onward marches science!


Although it isn’t relevant, I do not smoke cigarettes and never have. Nor I have ever received money or any consideration from any tobacco company, or, to my knowledge, any of their affiliates. Whereas Doc Winickoff has received plenty of bucks to express his view.

I was unable to locate Winickoff’s email and could not offer him a chance for rebuttal.

Thanks to reader Brad Tittle for bringing this subject to my attention.


  1. Ray

    Anybody that has studied the matter carefully knows that moderate cigarette smoking is good for you, there fore third hand smoke should also be beneficial. Here is a link to the Surgeon General’s 1967 report on smoking and health. You will not find it on the surgeon general website because it’s politically incorrect. It didn’t reach the politically correct conclusion that cigaretts are bad and smokers are doomed.

  2. DAV

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

    Rather bad example, no? At least I don’t see where the yes is compelled– unless of course it’s the infants and children part. I wonder why he omitted cute puppies from the list. NOT breathing the air though, may be very harmful.

    Third-hand drinking is equally disastrous. The effects of associating with someone whose husband is a confirmed alcoholic are obvious — particularly, if he catches you in congress with her. Perhaps this is a ripe area for a budding Nobel Laureate?

  3. GregO

    About the time the third-hand smoke thingy came out in Scientific American was pretty close to my last issue. Canceled it after Climategate.

    I remember thinking “hmm…isn’t it the dose that makes the poison? And how much dose is needed to activate our sense of smell?”

    It is the case that humans have a comparatively sensitive sense of smell and I realize this runs counter to the generally accepted “truth” that human sense of smell is not sensitive:

    Quoting from this source:

    “A third type of study demonstrating human olfactory abilities shows that in tests of odor detection, humans outperform the most sensitive measuring instruments such as the gas chromatograph.”

    So, it takes a relatively small dose to activate our sense of smell. Smoke from organic sources, tobacco being one, is at least to me, quite pungent and easily identified; I can smell a fire burning miles away, and can certainly smell third-hand tobacco smoke. Conclusion: it is most likely the dose from smelling third-hand smoke is low and is harmless because the dose is low; but since it is unaesthetic to many non-smokers a proposition that it is a carcinogen will likely go unchallenged.

  4. Man, this opens up all kinds of gigs! Think of the trauma suffered by poor souls driving through tunnels where days before cars spewing CO ran their course. Consider the third-hand – or maybe even fourth or fifth-hand – carbon monoxide surging through delicate respiratory systems! And maybe even children being carelessly exposed! Oh, the dangers lurking therein.

    What to do, too, about closed sports arenas where merely hours before professional rodeos were presented? Certainly, knowing what we do now of the settled dangers of excessive bovine flatulence, how can we enjoy the Ice Capades while considering the damage young lungs are suffering from third-hand exposure to those vile toxins? Where are the young scientists and attorneys who will provide the knowledge, effort and energy needed to right this wrong? There are fortunes to be made with this approach. Sign up at

  5. “Militant doctors chose the latter option and have invented the category of “third-hand smoke.” This is the smoke that is transfered to innocent third parties (and places) from people who do not smoke themselves, but who were, however briefly, in the presence of a smoker.”

    I see a parallel phenomenon with some of my less serious students. They associate with people who associate with stupid people, and sure enough, they start acting stupid, too. Kind of like some Militant Doctors.

  6. Wayne

    Second-hand smoke doesn’t have to be deadly in order to be banned. Being in a room with a smoker gives me a headache, clouds my thinking, and causes all my clothes to stink. I don’t think anyone has the right to impose this on me.

    Perhaps laws are over-zealous, but that’s no excuse to swing to the opposite extreme and insist that if it won’t kill you it’s perfectly fine for someone to subject you to it. Following that logic, we should be able to urinate on those nearby.

  7. Noblesse Oblige

    Soon to come: 4th hand smoke as the health effects of mentioning the word tobacco or cigarettes. leading to the eradication of all tobacco plants, seeds, and expunging from the dictionary.

  8. dearieme

    “Being in a room with a smoker gives me a headache, clouds my thinking, and causes all my clothes to stink.” It’s my guess that much of the purge against smokers has been brought on them by their own lousy manners – if you make people’s eyes smart and spoil their pleasure in their restaurant meals, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get banned from their presence.

  9. Will

    Wayne and dearieme: why stop at smoking? Personally I detest the smell of seafood; what right does an establishment have for deciding what to serve when they know full well I won’t be able to enjoy my freedome fries if some inconsiderate jerk decides to order a lobster??

    How dare someone enjoy a tuna sandwich knowing full well that it is an assault on my olfactory senses (not to mention exposing me to second hand mercury poisoning via lingering tuna particulates)????

    Maybe we should just ban life all together.

  10. Ben Palmer

    “Being in a room with a smoker gives me a headache, clouds my thinking, and causes all my clothes to stink. I don’t think anyone has the right to impose this on me.”

    Why don’t you just leave the room and find a more convenient one? Last week I wanted to spend a romantic evening and have dinner in a restaurant with my new girl friend. Yes there were candles on the table, but it was impossible to have a conversation, because the disco music was too loud.

  11. Adam H

    There are minor crimes such as public urination, indecent exposure, loitering, etc. that are similar to public smoking in that many people take offense at them. But then again, perhaps public smoking is more like body odor, poor hygiene, obnoxiously loud voices…

    Maybe someone can provide input on which side of the fence smoking should lie? As a non-smoker, I personally like the smell of cigarette smoke in moderation.

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