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Secondhand Smoke

What's the Problem?

Secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, is a complex mixture of gases and particles that includes smoke from the burning cigarette, cigar, or pipe tip (side stream smoke) and the smoke exhaled by a smoker(mainstream smoke). It includes at least 250 chemicals that are known to be toxic, including more than 50 which cause cancer.

There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke, even brief exposures can be dangerous. Secondhand smoke exposure causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their heart disease risk by 25–30 percent and their lung cancer risk by 20–30 percent. Breathing secondhand smoke has immediate harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, and can increase the risk of heart attacks.

Each year, secondhand smoke exposure causes approximately 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 22,700–69,600 heart disease deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States.3

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Who's at Risk?

Anyone exposed to secondhand smoke is at risk. People are exposed to secondhand smoke in homes, vehicles, workplaces, and in public places such as restaurants, bars, and casinos. However, homes and workplaces are the predominant locations for secondhand smoke exposure.

More than 126 million nonsmoking Americans continue to be exposed to secondhand smoke in homes, vehicles, workplaces, and public places.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes, the dangers from secondhand smoke can be eliminated only through 100% smoke-free environments includingrestaurants. Opening a window, using a fan, ventilation, air conditioning, or sitting in a separate area cannot eliminate secondhand smoke exposure.

To protect yourself and your loved ones:

  • Make your home and car smoke-free.
  • Ask family members, friends and guests who smoke to do so outdoors.
  • Choose restaurants and other businesses that are smoke-free.
  • And if you do smoke, the single best way to protect from secondhand smoke exposure is to quit smoking. Call 1-800-Quit-Now for free quit support.

The Bottom Line

There is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure.

Case Example

In a hospital room a couple watches as their 40-year old daughter, Jane, as she struggles to breathe. They watch the IV drip fluids into her veins, and ask themselves, "How could this happen? How did their daughter end up dying from lung cancer?" The doctors said she had a "smoker's tumor" but Jane never smoked cigarettes a day in her life. The doctors told them that non-smokers can develop lung cancer has a result of being exposed to secondhand smoke. While their daughter had never worked in a bar, where they knew there was a lot of secondhand smoke, she had spent a lot of time when growing up in the diner that the family owned. Could that have been where she have gotten exposed to so much secondhand smoke?

Before they went to the hospital, the next morning they went by the diner. For the first time, they noticed the smoke in the air and memories flooded through their minds. They remembered how much their daughter was a part of the diner, from when she was a little girl until the time she went to get her MBA. How she used to hang out with the customers when she got older. They remembered how the diner's air had a white haze to it.

That had to be the source of Jane's exposure to secondhand smoke all those years she was growing up. And now atmosphere in the business which both Jane and they loved had been unknowingly killing their beloved daughter. They had wished they had known about the hazards of secondhand smoke earlier.

On the way to the hospital they purchased No-Smoking signs to be put up the next day. Their business improved, but unfortunately Jane's health did not.

  • Page last reviewed: February 22, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 22, 2011
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