Archive for category Health

Candy Cigarettes

I have never smoked in life, save one time in college when I smoked a menthol cigarette after breaking up with my girlfriend.    My parents both smoked, as did my two sisters, so it’s a bit surprising I never got the habit — it’s probably because I hung out with non-smokers in school.

One thing I did enjoy were candy cigarettes.  They came in two basic kinds.  The ones shown above were stiffer, thinner and a bit ‘crispy’, with flame “printed” at the end.   The others were smoother, thicker, and harder to bite.  I preferred the thinner ones.   I would buy stacks of candy cigarettes to enjoy, not really thinking or caring about the fact they looked like cigarettes.   And, of course, there were also the colorful bubble gum cigars:

Last year in South Dakota, and this Saturday in Old Orchard Beach, Maine I found my old favorites, along with candies like Zotz and the green box of Jaw Breakers.    Of course, my kids took an interest in the candy cigarettes, soon pretending to be smoking them.   I didn’t mind, figuring that both by my words and my behavior I’m doing everything I can to assure my kids don’t smoke.   The idea that having candy cigarettes will make them more likely to smoke seems a bit silly.

Saturday at another candy store (we hit candy stores this weekend) in Portland, ME, they again found candy cigarettes.  I heard a father berate his son for wanting to buy them, and then muttering something about how they should not be on display in a place where kids frequent.   To be sure, the word ‘cigarette’ is no where to be found, and they no longer use real brand names.

However in the stores we visited there were “death mints” (mints in a casket), and other kinds of candy that were based on violent or ghoulish themes (including poison).   It seems to me that most kids are smart enough to distinguish between a candy and real smoking.   Eating a candy labeled poison, for instance, does not make one more likely to go down a bottle of real poison.   In general I think adults under estimate the ability of kids to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, which is probably why I’m a lot less protective of ‘bad influences’ (e.g., gun toys, movies, etc.) than many of my peers.

Yet I see the counter argument.   Cigarettes have been embraced by our culture and we’re trying to turn that around.   The other day when I got pizza at a local market and saw a woman buy two cartons of cigarettes for $196.   Yikes, the vending machine at the pizza parlor I worked at back in the late 70s sold them for 65 cents a pack!   By making them more expensive the goal is clearly to stop people from smoking.   The woman at the market did not look like she could afford to pay that kind of money.   It’s a regressive tax, to be sure, but probably worth it.

The negative health affects associated with smoking are well documented, and while I don’t mind second hand smoke (I mean, I grew up with it!) it is better not to have smokers everywhere — and I appreciate that my kids are going to grow up in a culture more hostile to smoking — and that includes not having candy modeled after cigarettes as a common snack.

The university where I work is going tobacco free this year, something that will be very difficult for staff and students who until now had to go to designated areas outside for their smoke.    When I got here in 1995 professors were complaining about not being able to smoke in their offices, a new policy back then.   Now there has been a generational change and few if any professors smoke.   Staff and students are sometimes shivering in mid-winter outside to smoke; now they’ll have to go off campus completely.

Over all, I think this is good, and the cultural message shaped by these policies has been effective – people generally find smoking to be dirty and disgusting.   Last night I was watching one of my favorite old TV shows — I bought the DVD set of the old Banacek series from the early seventies (alas only 16 episodes were made).  Banacek (played by George Peppard) routinely smoked the little cigars popular at the time — sort of a cross between cigar and cigarette — the same kind my dad smoked.  One sees in that show the difference in how smoking was accepted (in restaurants, planes, etc.) and widespread.

My dad died at age 60 due to pancreas cancer, eight years before my oldest son was born.   The smoking culture took him early — he started at 17 because only smokers could take ‘smoking breaks’ where he worked, so to get a break he smoked — and got addicted.   For all the talk about personal responsibility, once the culture lures you into an addiction it is very difficult to break.   Overall, I’m glad the culture has changed thanks to public policy, taxes and even university policies.

This is an example of laws and policy being used for the public good.   Cigarette companies addicted people purposefully and then had life time customers for a product that led to early death, poor health, and increased costs to the public in terms of missed work and higher shared expenses.    I am glad we do not live in the Banacek era of ubiquitous cigarettes!    While I sympathize with those who now cannot smoke on campus, hopefully this will help push them away from an expensive and unhealthy habit.

I also think it’s good that candy cigarettes aren’t everywhere.   I am glad I can still find them in specialty shops, and I do think my kids can have them now and then without increasing the risk they’ll really smoke.    The culture now works against smoking, thanks in part to candy cigarettes having become rare!    Still, when I bit off a piece of one (as I just did), it brings back a bit of my childhood.    Now if I could only find “Pillsbury’s Space food sticks…”


Changing Habits

My garage is full of chemicals.  I can kill wasps, ants, and weeds.   I can kill weeds but keep the grass alive.  I can weed and feed, I can fertilize, I can clean.   I can clean grease, stains, and various surfaces of my car.

I have spent most of my life under the illusion that most of these materials sold to make life easier are relatively safe.   I know you shouldn’t mix various cleaning materials, with some you should wear gloves (something I’ve generally neglected to do), and that too much could be bad.   Yet certainly the companies that make all these things for home and garden have tested them out.   And even if the market couldn’t prevent dangerous items from being made available, government regulations must focus on safety.

I’ve been using speed stick deodorant, Nivea shaving cream and moisturizer, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, and the kids have enjoyed yummy smelling colorful soaps, and plastic tub toys.   We’ve been cooking with no stick pans, and drinking sodas from plastic bottles, even if they’ve been sitting in the car on hot days.   It’s just life.   We don’t smoke, we try to have healthy habits, but plastics, chemicals and additives are ubiquitous.    The idea I should have a lush green lawn not marred by clover and crab grass seems normal.   Everybody, save a few old hippies, lives this way.

I’ve now come to the realization that how we live with chemicals is analogous to how the Romans lived with lead poisoning.   We’re poisoning ourselves and our children (look how autism and ADHD rates have skyrocketed) by injecting massive amounts of under tested chemicals in every aspect of our lives.    I’m not sure how much poison we’re getting.   People still live long, but chemicals seem to play a role in making us fatter and creating expensive health problems.    Rates of cancer are up, so are a variety of other health problems.    Moreover, the generation now in their 20s and 30s are far more affected by these chemicals than people my age, since widespread usage really got going in the 80s and 90s.   We may not know the real impact for quite some time.

This creates a perfect storm.   There is a danger that seems obvious, but it can’t be verified with certainty, and the exact impact is unknown.   Moreover, studies can always be criticized (and a very well oiled chemical industry lobbying machine responds to everything) and it may be decades before we know for sure just what the impact of all this is.   Humans tend to ignore issues like that — if the problems aren’t obvious, why bother?

That’s been me for years.   I’ve known the chemicals in our lives are dangerous and under tested.   I’ve had suspicions that my use of them was probably not all that wise.   But those have been fleeting thoughts at the back of my head.   They haven’t been strong enough to get me to actually dig into the science and think about changing my ways.   There are classes to teach, kids to take care of, things to do.   So it’s grab what’s at Walmart and whether in cleaning or lawn care, take the easy route.

In May I read What’s Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins, a book that gave an excellent and well supported overview of the scope of the problem, showing clearly how little we know, how studies are often hidden and attacked, and just how powerful the chemical lobby is in the US.   In the EU there are far stricter regulations (so I’m going to keep using my made in Germany Nivea skin care products), here the burden of proof is not on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe, but for others to give definitive proof that there are dangers.

My wife read the book as well, and was convinced.    She replaced most of our household cleaning and personal hygiene materials with Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine, or Burt’s Bees.   I went along with it, figuring that at the very least this is the kind of thing that companies will pay attention to — if the market shifted towards low chemical alternatives businesses would have to follow.   But I was still skeptical.   The thing about books with a mission — and Jenkins’ clearly is convinced of his argument and has a desire to open peoples’ eyes — is that they are prone to overstatement.   The book cited science, but the author is not a scientist.   So I’ve been investigating further.

But the more I read the more convinced I am that not only is there a lot of uncertainty on what these chemicals are doing to us, but that the massive increase in chemical use and our exposure, especially children, is by definition extremely risky.     Chemicals are powerful, they have side effects that often aren’t understood.    The websites and blogs criticizing those concerned about chemicals tend to have weak arguments.   They either deride/ridicue “anti-chemical” folk for being too alarmist and blaming things on chemicals that might be caused by something else.

Both of those points may be true, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that chemicals aren’t a problem.   Same for the statement that ‘just because it’s not natural doesn’t make it bad.’   That’s true.  But it doesn’t mean they are good or harmless either.  Defenders of chemical usage rest on the arguments that: a) they are beneficial in helping us achieve our goals; and b) studies haven’t definitively shown the specific harm being done.   Most of the evidence against chemicals is circumstantial.

OK.  Consider this chart:

This rapid and alarming rate of increased obesity corresponds to the rise of chemical additives in food, many of which affect hormones and other aspects of the anatomy that influence fat retention.   Is this circumstantial?   Yes.   The causes of increased obesity are many, despite many links connecting the two (see: The Body Restoration Plan by Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton for a good argument on this issue), definitive proof remains elusive.

The same goes for the rapidly growing rates of autism (and other neurological disorders) in children, increases in depression and psychological problems in adults, hyper sensitivity issues, increased allergies, and increased incidences of cancer (even if medical science is much better at curing it).   If I demanded total proof that these chemicals are harmful before deciding not to use them, I could find arguments that cast doubt on every claim of harm made.

But my health is at stake.   The lives and health of my children are at stake.  And the evidence that harm is likely is very persuasive, even if absolute proof is elusive (it was also elusive for cigarette smoking for decades, where another powerful lobby tried to fight making such a connection).  Simply the fact that chemical usage has risen so dramatically is enough to get me to realize it is irrational for me not to be concerned — throw that much new artificial under tested chemicals into our bodies and homes and its clear no one knows exactly what the result will be.

So my habits are changing.   Some changes are gradual, others are instantaneous.   I’ll not try to get a perfect lawn, so no more weed and feed.  I will finish my Speed Stick before using the natural (no aluminum) deodorant.    I’ll try to hit the Farmers’ Market more frequently and buy organic/local as much as possible, but now and then we’ll still get some fast food.   Most importantly I’m going to start thinking about these things, investigating the products we use and the food we eat.   Big agribusiness doesn’t care about us.   Regulators lack staff and the politicians listen to the lobbyists of big money more than they listen to scientists or citizens.     We have to educate ourselves and hope that enough people see the danger that we can have an impact on the market.

Chemicals are everywhere, no matter how much I change at home our world is defined by chemical usage at work, by local governments, stores, and other people.   This is something we have to live with.   But making some different choices at home can’t hurt — and may yield long term benefits.