Journal Article 1)
Since the mid-1990s the position that “no amount of secondhand smoke is safe” has achieved hegemonic status in the field of public health. This has bolstered efforts in the tobacco control community to advocate for smoke-free legislation and a variety of countries around the world have implemented indoor smoking bans, with many others presently following suit. Increasingly, tobacco control advocates and nonsmokers’ rights groups have also successfully lobbied to extend the reach of smoke-free legislation into outdoor places and private spaces such as apartment buildings and cars.
Yet, despite the absolute tone of public health messaging on secondhand smoke, a body of research suggests that evidence on the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke is overstated.
This paper examines why secondhand smoke has been such a central focus in tobacco control and public health policy, despite the limitations of the available evidence base on its health impacts. I argue that public health responses to secondhand smoke can only be understood in relation to the liminal and transitive qualities of cigarette smoke and its capacity to dissolve the boundaries between bodies.
My key goal is to illustrate the influence of cultural assessments about the nature of “risk” on epidemiological standards of evidence. I contend that the subjectively experienced abjectness of cigarette smoke far more than the “objectively” demonstrable harms to health it causes ultimately explain both popular and public health responses to the substance.
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Clearly, the science of secondhand smoke cannot be divorced from the cultural context central to its emergence as a public health issue. Whilst objections to secondhand smoke are longstanding, it is only in the past two decades that it has been singled out for uniform attack as a dangerous and polluting substance. On the basis of the relatively minor established health risks secondhand smoke exposure poses – risks that are most concrete in the context of long-term and intensive exposure – strikingly absolute legislation has been enacted to remove all traces of secondhand smoke from indoor public places and, increasingly, outdoor public spaces as well.
I have tried to demonstrate that public health responses to secondhand smoke cannot be divorced from the abject and mimetic effects of this smoke. Smoke dissipates bodily boundaries and undermines the separation between self and other in ways highly problematic in the context of late industrial capitalist life. Its powerful mimetic effects disguise the highly artificial medicalised meanings secondhand smoke has come to hold over the past twenty-five years. Thus, the intrinsic “risk” it poses, regardless of intensity of exposure, has become apparently self-evident: a cultural and medical “fact” requiring little explication.