Secondhand Smoke

Today most people have heard the statement "secondhand smoke kills." But in society's increasing awareness of the health dangers of tobacco, of the lies manufactured by the tobacco industry, and of an emerging body of law supporting smokefree policies, it is not enough to simply state "secondhand smoke kills" without knowing how secondhand smoke is a health danger, whom it affects, where exposure is the most serious, and what can be done to stop it.

In February 2015, the CDC released a Vital Signs report that found nonsmokers' exposure to secondhand smoke was reduced by half between 1999-2012, yet 1 in 4 nonsmokers remain exposed. The report found striking disparities among those Americans who are still breathing secondhand smoke. More than 1 in 3 nonsmokers who live in rental housing are exposed to secondhand smoke, and 2 out of every 5 children (including 7 out of 10 African American children) are exposed. Despite the tremendous progress the U.S. has made in eliminating secondhand smoke in workplaces and public places, much progress remains to be achieved in protecting everyone's right to breathe smokefree air in the workplace and in the home. (See the fact sheet, infographic, and other materials on the CDC's web site.)

Throughout the years, the science of secondhand smoke has driven the secondhand smoke policy engine from separate smoking and nonsmoking sections to separately ventilated smoking rooms to 100% smokefree environments. We now know that 53,800 people die every year from secondhand smoke exposure. This number is based on the midpoint numbers for heart disease deaths (48,500), lung cancer deaths (3,000), and SIDS deaths (2,300) as calculated in the 1997 California EPA Report on Secondhand Smoke. And children are at significant risk to many acute and chronic diseases as a result of secondhand smoke exposure.

In 2007, a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology was able to detect damage in the lungs of nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke. For more information on this study, read the study's abstract. (Courtesy of RSNA and Chengbo, Wang, PhD.)

CNN also produced a video news story about the study, which can be viewed online here.

To view a larger image of the MRI scans, click on the image itself.

Courtesy of RSNA and Chengbo, Wang, PhD.

Since the 1986 Surgeon General's Report titled The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking stated that secondhand smoke can cause disease in nonsmokers, hundreds of studies have concluded not only this, but that exposure to secondhand smoke can result in death. Over the past 20 years, scientific research has become even more clear, resulting now in the ability to pinpoint the effects of secondhand smoke not just on particular organs, but on various ethnicities, types of workers, and socioeconomic classifications.

The 2010 U.S. Surgeon General's Report, How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease, confirms that even occasional exposure to secondhand smoke is harmful, and that low levels of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke lead to a rapid and sharp increase in dysfunction and inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which are implicated in heart attacks and stroke. Learn more about this important report in the Surgeon General's fact sheet.

The 2006 Surgeon General's Report on The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke confirmed the known health effects of secondhand smoke exposure, including immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, and coronary heart disease and lung cancer. The report concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke and that establishing smokefree environments is the only proven way to prevent exposure. The report also finds that many millions of Americans are still exposed to secondhand smoke despite substantial progress in tobacco control. Here is the great video shown at the Surgeon General press conference in June 2006.

As the body of scientific evidence becomes larger and more precise, it is now possible to prove that smokefree policies not only work to protect nonsmokers from the death and disease caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, but also have an immediate effect on the public's health . On a larger scale, a study has confirmed that restaurants and bars located in smokefree cities have 82% less indoor air pollution than restaurants and bars in cities that do not have smokefree protection. Because of the mountain of evidence from these peer-reviewed, scientific studies, the Centers for Disease Control recently issued a warning for anyone at risk for heart disease to avoid smoke-filled indoor environments completely.

Secondhand smoke kills. Knowing the science behind it, as well as how smokefree policies protect the public from secondhand smoke, will help cement this in the minds of the public.