“Third-hand smoke” and the need for focus in public health

Following years and even decades in which much of the visible role of the public health profession has consisted of interventions against voluntary choices that had nothing to do with inflicting contagious disease, we have come to re-learn painfully about its older and more fundamental role in situations where the survival of strangers really may depend on our personal choices each day. If there’s any justice, it means none of us will ever have to pay attention again to concocted scares over things like “third-hand smoke,” said to be transmitted by persons who didn’t smoke around us, but came into our presence bearing residues of tobacco smoke on their hair or clothing from having smoked elsewhere. [Jacob Grier, Exponents magazine; our 2009 coverage]


  • It’s too late. The health nannies have exhausted their credibility. Which is not a bad thing, because their demands now still go beyond what’s reasonable.

    • The health nannies have exhausted their credibility.

      As long as the health nannies hold the power of government, they don’t really need credibility. Note the long history of legal prohibitions based on nothing more than superstition with a dollop of wishful thinking thrown in for justification.

      The earliest surviving written Greek laws, the Locrian Code of 7th century BCE, specify sumptuary prohibitions (who can wear various articles and colors of clothing, who can associate with whom, etc.), and a prohibition on drinking undiluted wine.

      For a historical survey of such laws and their consequences, see Thomas Szasz, Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. 2003 [1974]. ISBN 978-0-8156-0768-7.

      Widespread public panics and hysteria provide fertile ground for such laws and regulations in democracies.

      Insofar as free speech is legal (and sometimes when it isn’t, recall Samizdat in the Soviet Union), ridicule and satire are sometimes useful weapons against them.

      In that vein, I note one early 20th century satire, published during a public panic to sanitize everything that infants might possibly contact.

      Strictly Germ-proof (1906)
      Arthur Guiterman (1871 -1943)

      The Antiseptic Baby and the Prophylactic Pup
      Were playing in the garden when the Bunny gamboled up;
      They looked upon the Creature with a loathing undisguised;
      It wasn’t Disinfected and it wasn’t Sterilized.

      They said it was a Microbe and a Hotbed of Disease;
      They steamed it in a vapor of a thousand-odd degrees;
      They froze it in a freezer that was cold as Banished Hope
      And washed it in permanganate with carbolated soap.

      In sulphurated hydrogen they steeped its wiggly ears;
      They trimmed its frisky whiskers with a pair of hard-boiled shears;
      They donned their rubber mittens and they took it by the hand
      And elected it a member of the Fumigated Band.

      There’s not a Micrococcus in the garden where they play;
      They bathe in pure iodoform a dozen times a day;
      And each imbibes his rations from a Hygienic Cup—
      The Bunny and the Baby and the Prophylactic Pup.