January 2000


Bad habits

Researcher says antismoking policies, though admirable, shouldn’t be based on hazy science

Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division researcher Roger Jenkins is a “lifetime never smoker” who does research on environmental tobacco smoke with data gathered from studies on people who are exposed to it and the places where they are exposed.

Environmental tobacco smoke, or ETS, is more commonly referred to as second-hand smoke. During the last decade or so, smokers have been banished to the porches by smoke-free policies often founded on the premise that ETS poses a health hazard to those who are exposed to it.

Jenkins, a lover of the outdoors who disdains the smoking habit, nevertheless says his research findings are “not congruent” with risk assessments that concluded that 3,000 excess deaths from lung cancer each year are attributable to ETS exposure.

Jenkins has just updated the book he wrote with Mike Guerin and Bruce Tomkins, Chemistry of Environmental Tobacco Smoke, first published in 1992, with “major updates” to the data and findings based on the ongoing research.

“A well known toxicological principle is that the poison is in the dose,” says Jenkins, who also is the ORNL program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Technology Verification Program. “It’s pretty clear that the ETS dose is pretty low for most people.”

More importantly, Jenkins says, policies barring smokers from workplaces have been based on “scientific findings” that don’t hold up under scrutiny. At least they aren’t in agreement with the analytical and exposure work he’s been involved in for several years, including a 16-city study of ETS in residential and occupational settings as well as studies that included smoggy bars and hazy restaurants.

“People who have wanted to regulate smoking in public places—or ban it outright—have relied on old estimates of ETS concentration and have proved what they wanted to prove. But if you plug in the hard, scientific, peer-reviewed data from the 16-cities study, you do not come to the same conclusions.”

In fact, Jenkins points out that a judge has since vacated a government report on ETS and lung cancer, indicating that conclusions were reached before the evidence was objectively reviewed.

In the 16-cities study and more recent studies, individuals have been interviewed on smoke habits and physically tested. Jenkins relies on a substance called cotinine, a compound found in saliva that is a metabolite of nicotine. Its presence in the saliva tells researchers pretty much whether a person is telling the truth or not when they say they are nonsmokers.

People tend to fudge about their smoking habits, he says. Cotinine analysis also provides a ballpark estimate of the magnitude of an individual’s ETS exposure.

Recently Jenkins and his colleagues have focused on the hospitality industry—restaurants and bars, for instance—because so many work places are now smoke free. Waiters, bartenders and croupiers in casinos are some of the few occupations left where exposure to ETS is frequent enough to study in the United States.

It's pretty clear that the second-hand smoke dose is pretty low for most people
“We’ve found something that has some pretty profound implications when it comes to making policy about smoke in the workplace. For bartenders who live with smokers, the away-from-work exposure is at least as important as the at-work exposure. And people who are highly exposed at home tend to be more highly exposed at work, probably because they don’t avoid it as much.

“Smoking is highly regulated in the U.S. workplace. But in a free society we can’t control household exposure; it’s just not possible.”

Jenkins says that by making smoking socially unacceptable, anti-smoking activists hope to curtail youth smoking through the second-hand smoke issue.

“Decreasing or stopping smoking, especially in young people, is an admirable goal,” Jenkins says. “But at some point, if you pervert the scientific process to achieve a political goal or if you cloak opinions as scientific findings, you stop becoming a scientist.

“The overwhelming medical and scientific consensus is pretty irrefutable about cigarrette smoking itself: It ups your risk of cancer signficantly, even if you once smoked and then stopped.

“But from an ETS standpoint, the data showing health risks from it are—at least to an analytical chemist—much less clear.”

What is DOE’s stake in the ETS question? The department has an ongoing indoor air quality research program that also includes research on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. At any rate, many of the methods and technologies used in the studies have paid off in other areas. Analytical methodologies from the tobacco smoke program have been applied to synthetic fuels research. More recently, researchers at Hanford, faced with the task of figuring out how to characterize potentially flammable organic vapors in the tank farms there, used sorbent technologies from the cigarrette smoke characterization project at ORNL to solve the problem.

Much of the funding for Jenkins’ work has come from the tobacco industry, a fact that might lead some to point fingers and cry “A-ha.” Jenkins is adamant that the tobacco industry funding has never stained his research.

“In fact, one reason that they support our research is that they know we’ll give the data a fair shake,” he says.

“These data come from hours, days, weeks and months of peer reviewed study. No one has ever seriously questioned our methods or conclusions.”

What troubles Jenkins most is the lack of objectivity he’s seen in those who want to regulate smoking out of existence.

“Scientists must never tinker with their science just because they don’t like the outcome of their data. Just because you find cigarette smoking annoying doesn’t mean you should cherry-pick your data so that you can prove a health risk.

“I believe the medical community when they say that smoking is fraught with health risks. People, in fact, engage in many risky behaviors such as driving too fast, eating fatty foods—even childbirth is risky. But with regard to ETS, if you plug in the Lab’s 16-cities data into the risk assessment, you cannot come to the same conclusions that the regulatory bodies have come to.

“I suspect that because ETS is so annoying to so many people, it has been ‘too easy’ for them to accept the health risk mantra without objectively considering the data.”

The annoyance factor is one reason Jenkins doesn’t look to see smokers returning to the buildings. The culture change against it has been too profound to reverse, especially in the United States.

Or as someone remarked after Jenkins presented earlier ETS findings to a Lab audience, “It still stinks.”—B.C.