Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Is smoking legislation starting to go too far?

HerCanberra Team

Professor Simone Dennis explores third, fourth, and fifth hand cigarette smoke. 

Going up to a smoker as they stand off to one side, puffing away, has been all in a day’s work for Professor Simone Dennis. Over her 20-odd years as a smoking researcher, she’s approached many a wary smoker and disarmed them into having a conversation with her.

From all the experiences and data she’s collected, she’s sent back into the public some startling discoveries. She was the person who informed the world in 2016 about pregnant teens who smoke to reduce the size of their baby – a twisted interpretation of those warning labels on cigarette packets.

Across her career, Simone, who is now Head of Anthropology at the Australian National University, has been interested in various facets of cigarette smoking. In particular, she has focused on smoke-free regulations and the marginalisation of smokers.

It’s been two decades since Australia started imposing regulations to protect people from secondhand smoke. In that time, we’ve seen smoking become a social ill and smokers stigmatised. What’s more, a stigma creep has been occurring, and we’re becoming increasingly less tolerant of even the residual smell of cigarettes.

This residue or “sheen” is what’s known as third-hand smoke. It’s usually on a smoker’s skin, hair and clothes after smoking. Simone says this “sheen” lasts a very long time. How long? No one really knows.

“You can’t get rid of it by washing or airing things out,” she says. “And while it sits there on a surface, it lets off gases, which means it’s mobile too.”

Some researchers suggest third-hand smoke is potentially dangerous and transferable to others. Simone wants to demystify third (and fourth, fifth hand) smoke and the perceived dangers they pose to the public. What’s more, she’s conscious of how our perceptions about the apparent dangers of these is having a perhaps unintended societal impact.

“We got public space legislation so the harm to non-smokers can be reduced,” Simone says. “But it’s having a really interesting effect on who we accept in public spaces.”

“Across the Western world, smoking is now the practice of the socioeconomically marginalised. There are already a lot of sanctions on where they can and can’t belong in public space – this legislation is making that even more pointed.”

Simone explains that this marginalisation could become even worse should strict legislation regarding third-hand smoke’s “sheen” be enforced. But she warns public panic about sheen may not be based on solid scientific evidence.

“The problem we have at the moment is that there’s a lot of policy being made up about this sheen in the US – but there’s no established harm, we’re just assuming that it’s harmful. So it’s having some really dire consequences socially, but we’re not exactly sure just how dangerous this thing is.”

Already, the effects of our perceptions about sheen are being felt amongst certain groups.

“People are starting to be excluded from all sorts of public participation on the basis that they might be mobile contamination packages.”

The next target for stigma creep is fourth hand smoke – a concept that’s harder to grasp than third-hand smoke. Basically, it’s the transference of smoke residue from someone who has picked up the odour from someone else who has been smoking.

Then there’s fifth hand smoke – smoking you see in movies or TV shows – which you’re visually, but not physically, exposed to that might influence your smoking behaviour.

“Fourth and fifth hand smoke sound funny and made-up, and to some extent, I’m suggesting that there’s not a lot of science behind these things,” Simone says. “But both have dollar amounts attached to them in terms of the harm they’re assumed to cause.”

In her Move with the Current talk, Simone will discuss the evidence on the dangers (or otherwise) of third, fourth and fifth hand smoke, why non-smokers should be cautious about the widening boundaries of smoking legislation, and her fraught journey as a smoking researcher.

the essentials  

What: The dangers of third, fourth and fifth hand cigarette smoke (and the perils of researching smoking) – A Move with the Current talk by Professor Simone Dennis
When: Monday 30 April from 6.30-7.30pm
Where: ANU Pop-Up Club, The Australian National University, University Avenue, Acton
Cost: Free, with registration for tickets via Eventbrite

If you’re interested in learning more about the Master of Anthropology degree at ANU visit

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