Could legal cannabis normalize indoor tobacco smoking again? A recent study by River Hill High School student Hudson Kennedy and John Hopkins researchers Drs. Meghan Moran and Johannes Thrul investigates trends in cannabis and tobacco smoking rules in Denver Airbnbs.
Feb 11, 2020
By: Leta Dickinson
After the 2020 election, four more states—Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Montana—joined the growing list of states that allow the recreational use of cannabis, bringing the national tally to 15 plus Washington D.C. While cannabis advocates often discuss the potential revenue of a new industry, the value of clinical cannabis use, and the possibility of reducing racial arrest disparities, the consequences of legal cannabis on clean air are often overlooked.
Colorado has long been a leader in clean air tobacco control policies. In 2006, the state adopted a smoke-free policy for workplaces, restaurants, bars, and in 2019, added hotels to that list. However, cannabis is a different story. Colorado became the first to legalize recreational cannabis sales beginning in 2014, but despite the known toxic properties of second- and thirdhand cannabis smoke, cannabis smoke is not regulated under Colorado’s clean air laws.
Just like tobacco, secondhand cannabis smoke is the precursor of thirdhand smoke. In addition to cancer-causing compounds found in both cannabis and tobacco smoke that can be deposited on surfaces as thirdhand smoke, cannabis smoke residue also contains THC. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, and it reacts with ozone in the air to produce new compounds. This thirdhand cannabis can then be inhaled or ingested inadvertently with unknown health consequences. The known health risks of thirdhand cannabis combined with the lack of regulation garnered attention in an unlikely place: from a high school student.
Hudson Kennedy, a River Hill High School student in Maryland, was helping his dad, John Hopkins associate professor Dr. Ryan Kennedy, with tobacco research using public Airbnb data when he repeatedly saw that Denver Airbnb listings explicitly mentioned cannabis use. Kennedy’s father connected him with John Hopkins researchers Dr. Meghan Moran and Dr. Johannes Thrul to analyze the over 4,500 Denver Airbnb listings for cannabis information. Curious about the connection between perceptions of cannabis and tobacco, they also analyzed listing data for tobacco policies and compared tobacco and cannabis trends.
While Colorado may strict clean air laws forbidding indoor tobacco smoking in hotels, Airbnbs are a gray area. Airbnbs offer a convenient and more customizable alternative to hotels when traveling, but are privately owned properties and therefore are not subject to the same regulations. Airbnb recommends, but does not require, smoke detector installation, and in-home tobacco smoking permittance is entirely up to the individual Airbnb host. Despite a growing trend in legalizing cannabis use, Airbnb provides little mention of cannabis in its guidelines. Any information about cannabis is voluntarily included by the Airbnb host in the listing details.
Of the 4,500 Denver Airbnb listings, about a quarter mentioned cannabis (24%), with 18% permitting cannabis smoking while 6% explicitly did not allow in-home use. About 9% of all the Airbnbs allowed tobacco smoking on the premises. Of the listings that allowed cannabis, however, 31% permitted tobacco smoking—meaning Airbnbs that allow cannabis use were three times more likely to also allow tobacco use. Kennedy says these results may indicate a normalization of tobacco use that is related to destigmatizing cannabis.
“As more regulations and laws shift to legalize [cannabis], I think it’s loosening the safe air norms that we’ve been building around tobacco,” Kennedy says.
The researchers then factored in neighborhood income in their analysis as a measure of socioeconomic status. They found that the higher the income bracket of the neighborhood, the less likely the listing allowed cannabis or tobacco smoking on the property. Dr. Thrul says that their findings suggest greater levels of thirdhand smoke exposure in lower-income neighborhoods for both the Airbnb host as well as guests.
Dr. Thrul explains why this might be: “Either it’s just different social norms in different socioeconomic groups, or it could also mean that it’s economic necessity. If someone wants to appeal to the broadest group of potential patrons that they can, then maybe they’re more likely to allow smoking or cannabis use to appeal particularly to tourists who are coming there because of recreational legalization of cannabis.”
The researchers say their findings point to the necessity of stronger clean air laws regulating cannabis and in Airbnbs. Clean air laws prohibiting indoor smoking of any kind protect residents, renters, and visitors from toxic thirdhand smoke. Once a space contains thirdhand smoke, it can be very difficult and expensive to remove. Dr. Moran says the next best approach to is to start implementing changes moving forward, starting with mandated reporting of smoking history on Airbnb properties. That way, patrons can begin to protect themselves from thirdhand smoke by identifying and avoiding Airbnb locations where they may be exposed.
“At a bare minimum,” she says, “It needs to be clear to consumers what they’re signing up for. I’m particularly interested in the most effective way that Airbnb can clearly report rules regarding cannabis use indoors and outdoors.”
As more and more states legalize cannabis, it is essential to continue to uphold clean air quality laws and explicitly include cannabis in these regulations. Additionally, if Airbnb is to function like a hotel or like a rental home, it is important that guests know if they will be exposed to thirdhand smoke of any kind, whether tobacco or cannabis. Researchers need to continue investigating the effects of first-, second-, and thirdhand cannabis smoke on human health to inform policies that protect clean air for all.
Click here to read the research study.