Secondhand Smoke, Firsthand Problems

The Surgeon General's 2006 report on secondhand smoke makes two things perfectly clear: 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.

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"? 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.

Secondhand smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), "contains more than 250 chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic," says Acting Surgeon General Kenneth P. Moritsugu, M.D. "These chemicals include formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide. Individuals who are exposed to secondhand smoke are inhaling many of the same cancer-causing substances and poisons as smokers themselves. Because their bodies are developing, infants and young children are especially vulnerable."

Problems early on

Damage can start early, he says, 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.

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 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.

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.

Okay, 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.

One study found four out of five hotel guests prefer a smoke-free setting. At least two major hotel chains have gone 100 percent smoke-free in the U.S. and Canada. Smoking is banned on all U.S. domestic air flights and interstate bus travel and is restricted on trains. Arkansas and Louisiana even 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, says Jonathan D. Klein, M.D., director of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence for Children and Secondhand Smoke.

"Preventing exposure to secondhand smoke," he says, "is one of the most important child health priorities."

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

  • If a smoker lives in your home or visits, reduce the risk to household members. Smokers should not smoke in the home or 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 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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