Wellness: Diseases & Conditions

Secondhand Smoke, Firsthand Problems

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), secondhand smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), is a serious health problem that causes close to 50,000 deaths per year. The CDC reports that ETS contains at least 250 known toxic chemicals, 50 of which are known to cause cancer. Secondhand smoke causes premature death and disease in children and adults who don't smoke. Avoiding these dangers is a lot harder than we used to think. There is no safe threshold of exposure to secondhand smoke—there are immediate and longer-term consequences. 

Have you ever said, "Oh, I'll just go into the other room while I have a cigarette," believing you could keep the air cleaner? Or to clear the air of smoke, have you ever said, "I'll open the window" or "Put the air conditioner on"? Or have you ever breathed someone's smoke outside and thought, "It's just a nuisance"? If so, save your breath—and someone else's. Well-meaning though they may be, these steps just don't work.

Breathing even a little smoke can be harmful, because there is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke. The only way to protect yourself and the people you love is to provide a 100 percent smoke-free setting.

Problems early on

ETS damage can start early, even during pregnancy. Nonsmoking moms who have inhaled secondhand smoke while pregnant are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies who are prone to health problems.

CDC statistics show that infants whose mothers smoke while pregnant and babies who are exposed to cigarette smoke after birth are more prone to sudden infant death syndrome than babies with no exposure. Secondhand smoke has also been shown to slow children's lung growth and cause more frequent breathing problems, such as acute respiratory infections, pneumonia, and asthma. ETS also has been linked to a higher rate of chronic ear infections. Some health professionals even say that exposing children to secondhand smoke is a form of child abuse. 

Secondhand smoke hurts adults who don't smoke, too. It can help cause or worsen heart disease, lung cancer, and asthma. People who already have heart disease or respiratory conditions are at especially high risk.

OK, that's the bad news. Here's the good: fewer Americans than ever smoke. That alone has helped reduce nonsmokers' exposure to ETS. On top of that, more and more workplaces, schools, restaurants, and bars are banning smoking.

Many hotel guests prefer a smoke-free setting. And some major hotel chains in the U.S. and Canada are going 100 percent smoke-free. Smoking is banned on all U.S. domestic air flights and interstate bus travel, and is restricted on trains. Some states have made it illegal to smoke in a car with young riders.

Promoting changes like these means making sure your voice is heard. Work to raise awareness of the issue in your community. 

What can you do?

  • If you smoke, quit. Many free or low-cost stop-smoking programs provide guidance and support. To find a telephone quit line that serves your area, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or visit the U.S. government website for information on quitting smoking.

  • If a smoker lives in your home or visits, reduce the risk to household members. Smokers should not smoke in the home nor in the car. They should not smoke outside with children close by.

  • Pick restaurants, day care, and other businesses that are 100 percent smoke-free.

  • Find out what laws restrict smoking in workplaces and public areas in your state or community. Join coalitions that fight secondhand smoke. The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, or American Lung Association can point you to local groups.

  • Raise public awareness on the issue of secondhand smoke through letters to the editor and similar media forums.

  • Learn about and join the activities of the Smoke Free Homes project, run by a group of health care organizations, and the Smoke-Free Homes Program, run by the EPA.

Secondhand smoke causes serious health problems for millions of children. As the EPA states, you can become a child's hero by keeping a smoke-free home and car. 

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