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    Number of children exposed to second-hand smoke falls, but was it really dangerous anyway?

    17 June 2015

    There’s more good news for the anti-smoking lobby today. Data published in the scientific journal Addiction reveals that children are being exposed to 80 per cent less second-hand smoke than they were in 1998.

    Tens of thousands of children participated in the study, enduring cheek swabs and checks for the presence of cotinine, a derivative of nicotine. Tobacco inhaled is converted into cotinine, which can stay in the body for up to five days, but recent findings show incidence of this on young children is on the decline.

    This decline is remarkable. In the late 1980s the cotinine in the saliva of non-smoking children was measured at an average of 0.96 nanograms per millilitre. The researchers found that by 1998 that had fallen to 0.52 ng/ml. The most recent measurements, taken in 2012, found a further decrease to just 0.11 ng/ml. Now over two thirds of children have undetectable levels of cotinine in their bloodstream. When research in this area began that was almost unheard of.

    Even more interesting is that though the prevalence of smoking has fallen significantly in the past 17 years, it hasn’t fallen by 80 per cent (the figure is closer to a third). Smoking around children clearly has. This shows that attitudes to smoking have changed fundamentally since the turn of the century. That’s indisputably good news. But it’s worth asking if second-hand smoke ever really harmed them anyway.

    According to Vivienne Nathanson, senior director of the British Medical Association, ‘there is overwhelming evidence, built up over decades, that passive smoking causes lung cancer’. The 2006 US Surgeon General report claimed that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke and that ‘the scientific evidence is now indisputable: secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance. It is a serious health hazard that leads to disease and premature death in children and nonsmoking adults.’

    One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for Nathanson’s statement, and that of the US Surgeon General, is a study carried out in 1994 by Dr. Elizabeth Fontham. Amongst other things her research looked at women whose husbands smoked around them. It found that their relative risk of developing lung cancer was 1.29 (for that number to mean anything you need to know that a result of 2.0 would make that outcome twice as likely). But she found no association with exposure in childhood, or a negative relative risk of 0.89.

    That’s just one study. As Christopher Snowdon points out in his book on the history of anti-smoking, the majority of similar research finds no link at all, or a negligible increased likelihood of lung cancer in people exposed to second-hand smoke.

    This is important because in the future the anti-smoking lobby will inevitably push for an outright ban on tobacco in public places. And they tend to get their own way. Their arguments will basically consist of an appeal to ‘think of the children’. But the research suggests that it’s not them we should be worrying about. Lung cancer is on the rise amongst women, and no one is sure why. Smoking is less popular than ever – perhaps it’s time for public health puritans to focus on what’s really killing us.