Can You Get Lung Cancer from a Toilet Seat?

Author: Robert Prasker
Article Published: 2009/04/15

Tolerance for some, vilification for others, is the policy of "public health authorities."

 "You do not get HIV from:
* Being bitten by mosquitoes or other bugs
* Being bitten by an animal
* Eating food handled, prepared, or served by somebody with HIV infection
* Sharing toilets, telephones, or clothes
* Sharing forks, spoons, knives, or drinking glasses
* Touching, hugging, or kissing a person with HIV infection
* Attending school, church, shopping malls, or other public
  places with HIV-infected people."

- Surgeon General Antonia Novello, 1992 Surgeon General's Report on AIDS

"At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS. The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups “deserved” their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not people. Those who are already affected are sick people and need our care as do all sick patients. The country must face this epidemic as a unified society. We must prevent the spread of AIDS while at the same time preserving our humanity and intimacy."

-C. Everett Koop, 1986, the first Surgeon General's Report on AIDS

"ASH recently forced a major university to stop an employee, who took smoke breaks outside his smoke free office, from working in the same office with a women whose health -- and the health of her unborn child -- were threatened by his thirdhand smoke, according to testimony from two of her avoid being barred, smokers likely have to change clothing, shower and shampoo, and use mouthwash."

-John Banzhaf, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) press release, March 25, 2009

It's evident from the quotations above that our attitudes regarding risk and health have gone askew. In 1986 we knew the Surgeon General himself placed a priority on "our humanity and our intimacy". Today, we all know that we can't get AIDS from kissing a person with AIDS, and that we can't get AIDS from sharing a toilet seat. A Surgeon General’s Report endorsed these facts and ideas in 1992. The public remembers, and generally continues to endorse them.

Somehow  though, ASH would like for us to believe that one needs to change clothing, use mouthwash and do laundry if they go outside for a smoke. This is to protect others from the residual particulate matter on smoker's clothing; a contrivance called "third hand smoke".

Meanwhile, while the notion of "third hand smoke" has entered the vernacular, a search of the Surgeon General's website and the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) website regarding "third hand smoke" comes up empty at this writing. (Please feel free to search yourself at the in-text links provided.) This absence of information is troubling given the willingness of health practitioners and policy makers to invoke "third hand smoke" as a justification for instituting healthcare and workplace policies. Clearly, these policies haven't been adopted in any way by public health. Rather, ASH, an organization that thinks smokers should be arrested for homicide, is lobbying for these policies to be enacted.

"Third hand smoke" is really a misnomer; the residual smell left on clothing from burnt tobacco is only arguably "third hand" and it most certainly is not "smoke". In fact, “third hand smoke” is a catch-phrase, coined to promote a health scare, designed to destroy “humanity and intimacy.” There has been no epidemiological study to demonstrate that being exposed to residual tobacco smells represents any kind of risk to anyone. Anti-tobacco zealots simply want to instill that belief. They want to make smokers feared and hated. That has been their goal for decades. “Third hand smoke” is the latest tactic in the long-escalating war against smokers.

Science and truth have never gotten in the way of the anti-smoking agenda, and ASH hardly conceals their contempt for tobacco users with comments like: ""We've always known that a smoker's breath stinks. Now we know that it also creates indoor air pollution which can harm children and perhaps some adults."

One might think that such statements would subject the motives of ASH to a greater level of professional scrutiny. To the contrary, it's obvious that health institutions now act according to the guidance of ASH and other anti-smoking groups. Also, the lack of epidemiological evidence and government guidance hasn't stopped the media or politicians from leaping into action to protect children from a non-existent menace.

This alarmist approach to matters of public health has become commonplace, especially when it comes to tobacco. One would hope that government health authorities would step in to set the record straight, or that they'd issue guidance advising health practitioners to regard the claims of special interest groups like ASH with skepticism, at least until credible evidence can be produced. To the contrary, it appears that anti-smoking interests lead government health authorities by the nose. It also appears that the Surgeon General and CDC remain complicitly silent until they feel confident that the anti-smoking interests have been successful in pitching their scare du jour to the public.  Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona has already declared that there "is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke". Once the coast is clear, the Surgeon General and the CDC are likely to make similar claims regarding "third hand smoke".

Not so long ago, public health took an entirely different approach. When the AIDS outbreak came along in the nineteen eighties, gay men, in particular, were falling prey to a mysterious killer virus that laid waste to the immune system itself. There was no effective treatment and no known cure. The devastating nature of the disease immediately attracted the attention of the sensationalist media. In no time at all, fear, speculation and misinformation spread across the country. Far right religious groups immediately fanned the flames of hysteria by claiming the AIDS virus was a biblical plague with a moral agenda. The infectious nature of the disease seemed to confirm the suspicions of anyone who was ill-at-ease with homosexuality. Last, the prevalence of the disease amongst gay men seemed to be the excuse that every homophobe had been waiting for to justify and exalt their hatred for gays.

In 1982, 466* people had died of AIDS with hardly an eye blink from public health, and scientists proposed calling the new disease "Gay Related Immune Deficiency". 1 AIDS deaths more than tripled in 1983, and a June, 1983 Gallup poll revealed that 25% of the population felt that they could contract AIDS via "casual contact with an AIDS sufferer". 2 The CDC hadn't even appointed a group to investigate AIDS until the end of 1983, and when the group reported back in April of 1984, $20 million of additional federal funds had to be requested because 70 percent of those working on AIDS at the CDC had been diverted from other work areas. 3  In 1984, evangelist Jerry Falwell said in a televised interview that he didn't "hate homosexuals", just their "perverted life-style" and "sub-animal behavior". 4 Surgeon General C. Everett Koop did not release a report on AIDS until 1986. Approximately 10,000 people had died from AIDS in that year, and nearly 25,000 people** had died since 1981.

Only after Koop's 1986 report did the Surgeon General's office finally respond by providing credible information to the public regarding AIDS. The public was beginning to learn that AIDS is not transmitted by sharing a toilet seat or shaking hands. The reports from public health, if dismally overdue, were necessarily appropriate. They tamped down the flagrantly expressed hatred of homosexuals which early news about AIDS had inspired. The public health message was conceived to that end. An ill-conceived public health stance would have meant social ostracism for homosexuals.

That didn't happen. Rather, tolerance was called upon to deal with the crisis. Efforts were made to disabuse the public of misconceptions they had regarding both AIDS and homosexuality. Heterosexuals, of course, were not immune from AIDS, and this fact became very clear when basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was carrying the HIV virus in 1991. Questions immediately arose as to whether Johnson should be allowed to continue playing basketball. Johnson did so, and no one contracted AIDS from playing with him.

It seems clear that social attitudes of the time regarding homosexuality are what allowed much of the health community to delay while tens of thousands died. Once the media caught hold of the prevalence and nature of AIDS, it was largely up to gay rights groups and the very same media to set the record straight while public health scrambled.

The health issue of AIDS and the health issue of tobacco are entirely separate things. It is not my intent or purpose to imply that completely disparate health issues should be held to the same informative criteria. However, there are over 60 million tobacco users in the U.S., and tobacco is a legal product. The U.S. Constitution guarantees all equal protection under the law via the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, tobacco users are entitled to government treatment that is as ethical, responsible, and professional as that received by anyone else. Also, informational campaigns regarding tobacco use must treat the perfectly legal behavior with the very same tolerance it affords to any other group whose legal behavior leads to public health's epidemiological scrutiny.

As John Adams said, "We are a government of laws, not of men". Engaging in any kind of private sexual behavior should, of course, be legal under Federal law. Tobacco use, also, is and should be legal under Federal Law. Any changes in Federal Law going forward are Ex Post Facto, and cannot be held to account regarding the unjust treatment that the Federal Government has already allowed and endorsed regarding tobacco use by allowing Federal public health policy to be influenced by entities that hold tobacco users in contempt. The legality of particular behavior, first and foremost, should afford anyone engaging in any such legal behavior the very same tolerance and protection as any other group, and any further distinctions are irrelevant if they are not matters of law. Under the law, the disparate legal behaviors of citizens should not be subjected to prejudicial scrutiny or preferential protection. To believe otherwise is to remove the blindfold from Lady Justice.

HIV is mono-factorial: one must somehow contract the AIDS virus to be diagnosed with AIDS or test positive for HIV. Any cancer including lung cancer, as well as heart disease and other "smoking-related" illnesses are multi-factorial. Non-smokers, and even non-smokers who haven't reported any significant exposure to any perceived risk factors, sometimes get lung cancer. Since 10 to 15% of lung cancers occur in non-smokers each year in the U.S.A.,  even public health's statistical voodoo attributing around 3,000 annual non-smoking lung cancer deaths to secondhand smoke fails to account for thousands of people who never touched tobacco in their lives.
Meanwhile, the anti-smoking campaign adopted by both anti-smoking interests and public health have swept tens of thousands up in the social stigma they've created in making tobacco use a synonym for lung cancer. Once upon a time, public health worked hard to ensure that there would be no social stigma regarding mono-factorial AIDS, and it didn't matter if you contracted AIDS due to using illegal IV drugs or engaging in multiple sexual liaisons without protection, or if you contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion. AIDS required tolerance, and it wasn't just tolerance regarding homosexuals, it was tolerance regarding the disease of AIDS because human beings all deserve respect.

How different would our attitudes about both homosexuals and AIDS be today if Jerry Falwell and his ilk had been given charge of the health agenda regarding AIDS? I doubt that anyone would find comfort in the knowledge that Falwell didn't "hate homosexuals" but thought their behavior to be "perverted" and "sub-animal".

One could argue that homosexuality is not a choice– the issue of “nature and nurture” – while smoking is. Granted, but this argument completely misses the point. Illegal drug use, for example, is a choice. Who amongst us would want someone like Jerry Falwell calling the shots regarding how our current society treats marijuana users? What if a personality like Falwell went about the country influencing the medical and rehabilitative treatment of IV drug users? Would we consider that a responsible and ethical approach to public health?

The delusion that those sympathetic to the cause of anti-tobacco seem to operate under is that ethical, knowledgeable, professional public health experts are particularly concerned about tobacco use and, because of that concern, they are approaching the issue with an ever vigilant watchfulness dedicated to consequence, objectivity and reason.

To the contrary, dogmatic zealots are manning the helm when it comes to the public information and perceptions regarding tobacco use. Homosexuality does not "cause" AIDS. Similarly, neither smoking nor exposure to tobacco smoke "causes" lung cancer. In the same way that religious beliefs regarding homosexuality and AIDS can be morally obtuse, so can equally dogmatic, secular notions regarding tobacco use.

Jerry Falwell had firmly placed himself within our culture as being anti-gay long before AIDS came around. Similarly, lawyer John Banzhaf had ensconced himself in the anti-smoking movement decades before anyone had ever dreamed of the notion that secondhand smoke, nevermind "third hand smoke", causes disease. "Third hand smoke" is yet another attempt by Banzhaf and his ilk to see how effective their outrageous claims will be at convincing an alarmingly uninformed and credulous public to persecute people who use tobacco.

So, can you get lung cancer from a toilet seat? No. But public health is perfectly willing to abide when equally ridiculous claims are made by anti-smoking groups like ASH. Not only do public health officials fail to put an end to this nonsense, it appears that they are taking a wait-and-see approach to see if anti-tobacco groups will be successful in spreading irrational fears. If the anti-tobacco groups are successful, then public health will emerge from the shadows with a blessing and endorsement for the lies spread by the anti-tobacco evangelists. Public health doesn't care if you lose your job, lose your spouse, lose your children, or lose your friends. They'll ruin your life before they'll let you have a perfectly legal cigarette. 

Allowing groups like ASH to run the public health agenda of our country is quite like empowering Jerry Falwell to pave the way regarding national AIDS policy. If that had occurred, your television and radio would tell you to be afraid to embrace or work with people who are gay, and reluctant to share bathrooms with them. It appears that this is pretty much where public health policy is going regarding tobacco use, and probably obesity as well. Public health seems to have lost sight of the fact that we are all human beings, and we all deserve to be treated with dignity, tolerance, respect and equal treatment under the law.

At the very least, even a public health policy that discourages smoking should draw the line at allowing anti-smoking evangelists to spread fear and lies regarding tobacco and its users. Public health needs to be cleansed of the influence of zealous special interests and financially motivated pharmaceutical makers. Permitting the spread of more hatred, lies and irrationality will keep us on the destructive path which public health has followed for decades.

Whatever happened to public health’s concern regarding "our humanity and our intimacy"? Public health's current approach to tobacco policy is not only wrong, it's outrageous, and it should be decried by all, whether they use tobacco or not.

*AIDS death statistics from the time vary according to the source.  Randy Shilts' book "And The Band Played On" is commonly regarded as the definitive chronicle of the AIDS outbreak and subsequent public and government response. Shilts indicates on page 191 of his book that 260 people had died of AIDS by October 5, 1982. HIV charity AVERT  places the total AIDS mortality for 1982 at 466.

**Similarly, adding up AVERT's numbers indicates that by 1986 over 25,000 people had died of AIDS since 1981. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's 1986
press statement places the number at "almost 15,000". I use AVERT's numbers.

1. Randy Shilts, "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic", First Stonewall Inn Edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000) p. 121 
2. Ibid., p. 352
3. Ibid., p. 444
4.Ibid., p. 347
5. Ibid., p. 587

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