And Now There’s Third-Hand Smoke

By Jessica McElroy

We all know about the dangers of first and second-hand smoke, which are easy enough to comprehend.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, directly inhaling smoke from a cigarette, or first-hand smoke, is a known cause of lung cancer.  Second-hand smoke, the diluted smoke exhaled from a smoker or emitted from the burning end of a cigarette is also a carcinogen.

But it seems the dangers of smoking reach even further.  In recent years Scientific American, MSNBC and the University of California have reported that third-hand smoke — the mixture of cigarette smoke toxins and chemicals that linger in material around them, including on the fabric of smokers’ clothing — poses a threat to the health of nonsmokers.  A 2011 article by the Mayo Clinic states that third-hand smoke can cling to “hair, skin, clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces, even long after smoking has stopped.”  Infants, children and non-smoking adults may be at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, ingest or touch substances containing third-hand smoke.  Studies indicate that infants and children are especially susceptible to these harms, but even adults may be at risk.

Well, whatever odor sticks to Aunt Sadie’s jacket when she smoked earlier today can’t be so bad, right?  So it’s fine if she now cuddles with Baby Bobby?  Think again. According to the New York Times, third-hand smoke can contain a bunch of fun stuff including hydrogen cyanide, butane (found in lighter fluid), toluene (found in paint thinner), arsenic, lead, carbon monoxide and polonium-210 (a highly radioactive and toxic carcinogen).  And all of it is resistant to normal cleaning. Yum!

So it was only a matter of time before companies started imposing new rules against third-hand smoke – that is, people smoking on their own time away from work.

Last month, Fox News reported that Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana will expand its anti-smoking policy to ban third-hand smoke beginning July 1, 2012.  This expansion will prohibit the smell of smoke on employees’ clothing, as well as the use of tobacco products while at work, including while on break.  The hospital’s ultimate goal is to have its employees stop using tobacco products permanently and Cabrini has offered support services to help their employees quit.

Since Cabrini’s new policy will impose on its employees’ activities when they are off-duty, there would seem to be some potential legal landmines associated with the ban.  The media didn’t examine them. LASIS will.  

Cabrini is a private hospital owned by a Catholic not-for-profit health organization.  As a private institution, it can impose any policy it wants to, so long as it complies with local and state laws.   In 2007, Louisiana’s Smokefree Air Act took effect.  Its purpose was to “protect nonsmokers from involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke in most indoor areas open to the public, public meetings, restaurants, and places of employment.” The Act does not mention third-hand smoke.

On the other hand, Louisiana is one of 29 states with a law that protects smokers.  Because the same statute states that a person may not be discriminated against “during the course of employment” as long as she complies with the “applicable law and any adopted workplace policy regulating smoking.” The law further states that is unlawful for an employer “to require, as a condition of employment, that the individual abstain from smoking or otherwise using tobacco products outside the course of employment.”  The penalty for an employer’s violation of the statute is a fine of $250 for the first offense and $500 for any subsequent offenses.

When the ban goes into effect next year, employees of Cabrini Hospital can argue that not allowing them to work if they smell like cigarette smoke infringes upon their right to smoke at home or in their cars on the way to work.

Cabrini Hospital is not the first employer to impose a ban on working while smelling of smoke.  An insurance company in Des Moines, Iowa did so last year as an incentive to get people to kick the habit – no mention of third-hand smoke exposure. Unlike Louisiana, Iowa does not have a law that protects smokers.

Not surprisingly, organizations such as The Smoking Lobby that advocate for the rights of smokers and against smoking discrimination are adamant that the harmful effects of inhaling second-hand smoke are overstated. As the debate over second-hand smoke rages on, the addition of third-hand smoke’s dangers to the melee will surely spark anger on both sides.

What do you think, readers?



4 Responses

  1. Kenneth T. says:

    I’m of two minds about this. If people have compromised immune systems already (they’re sick and hospitalized) maybe the residue smoke makes them sicker. On the other hand, does it really, or are just being Big Brother about everything these days?

  2. Kenneth says:

    Charles – do you happen to work for a tobacco company?!

  3. Ellen says:

    Next up will be protecting people with allergies from co-workers who have pets, use laundry products with fragrances, dry clean their suits (there are chemicals used in that process), eating onions or garlic………shampoo, soap, lip gloss (don’t go near that water fountain!). On and on it will go until every freedom of choice is removed from our lives. In the meantime, the diesel bus and delivery truck will continue polluting the air – not that I advocate a move to donkey carts.

    It’s all about the lobbying and political correctness, a.k.a. respectively “follow the money” and “delusions of sweetening a turd.”

  4. Sally W. says:

    I am a non-smoker who lives with a smoker. Therefore, I am the inadvertent carrier of third-hand smoke. Or is it fourth hand? The other night an acquaintance told me she could smell cigarette smoke on me. Hopefully I was not reeking, but there is smoke in my home. Are family members of smokers now the new pariahs? I have long since made peace with the fact that I cannot get my husband to quit his habit, but I resent being lumped with him because I apparently carry traces of smoke odor with me. I do think we have become amazingly fussy over tiny annoyances in this society, and that people who would dare mention this to me are very rude.