Secondhand Smoke

Exposure to secondhand smoke, even for a short time, can be harmful to both children and adults. Most people are exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes or the places they work. People may also be exposed to secondhand smoke in public places like bars, restaurants, and casinos, as well as in vehicles.1,2,3

Smokefree laws for all workplaces and public areas protect people who do not smoke. There are also steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from secondhand smoke, such as making your home and vehicles smokefree.2,3 These laws and policies are the only way to fully protect people who do not smoke from secondhand smoke exposure. They also can help people who smoke quit, and can help keep young people from starting to smoke.1,4,5

What Is Secondhand Smoke?
  • Secondhand smoke is smoke from burning tobacco products, like cigarettes, cigars, hookahs, or pipes.1,6,7
  • Secondhand smoke also is smoke that has been exhaled, or breathed out, by the person smoking.6,7
  • There are more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, including hundreds of chemicals that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer.1 Here are just a few of the chemicals and poisons in tobacco smoke:
14 million children aged 3-11 years are exposed to secondhand smoke. Benzene found in gasoline; Butane used in lighter fluid; Ammonia used in household cleaner; Toluene used in paint thinners; Cadmium used in making batteries; Hydrogen Cyanide used in chemical weapons

Who is Harmed by Secondhand Smoke?

Anyone who is exposed to it, even for a short time. Secondhand smoke can cause health problems in children and adults, and can even be deadly.1,2,6 Since 1964, about 2,500,000 people who do not smoke have died from health problems caused by secondhand smoke exposure.1

Because more communities and states are adopting smokefree laws, the number of adults exposed to secondhand smoke in public places like worksites, bars, restaurants, and casinos has gone down.8 However, for many, especially children, exposure to secondhand smoke happens in places like homes and vehicles.9 You are especially likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke if you live in multi-unit housing—like apartment buildings with many homes next to one another in the same place.9,10

What Health Problems Can Secondhand Smoke Cause?

How Secondhand Smoke Harms Adults1,3,8

  • Even if you have never smoked, secondhand smoke can still cause:
    • Heart disease
    • Lung cancer
    • Stroke

Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can be harmful to your heart and blood vessels.

How Secondhand Smoke Harms Children1,3,8

  • Because their bodies are still growing, infants and young children are especially vulnerable to health risks from secondhand smoke.
  • Babies who breathe secondhand smoke are more likely to die unexpectedly from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also called crib death, than babies who are not exposed to smoke from burning tobacco products.
  • Babies exposed to secondhand smoke in the womb or after birth are born and grow up with weaker lungs than babies that are not exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Babies and children who breathe secondhand smoke are sick more often with bronchitis, pneumonia, and ear infections than those that are not exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • For children with asthma, breathing secondhand smoke can trigger an asthma attack.
How We Can Protect Our Children from Secondhand Smoke

Homes are the main places where babies, children, and teens are exposed to secondhand smoke.1,9

  • In 2019, almost 7 million U.S. middle and high school students (about 25%) reported breathing secondhand smoke in their homes, and just over 6 million (about 23%) reported breathing secondhand smoke in vehicles.9
  • A larger percentage of non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic white middle and high school students in the U.S. reported being exposed to secondhand smoke in 2019 than Hispanic/Latinx middle and high school students or students of other races.9
Children Can’t Hide from Secondhand Smoke at Home. Here’s Why.1,11
  • Smoking in another room like a bathroom or bedroom can still spread secondhand smoke through the air in your home. In an apartment building, secondhand smoke can go in between apartments.
  • Smoking outside in a hall or stairwell does not protect children inside. Smoke goes under doors, windows, and through cracks.
  • Opening a window or using a fan does not protect children from secondhand smoke.
  • Air purifiers and air fresheners do not remove secondhand smoke.
  • Smoke from one cigarette can stay in a room for hours. Don’t smoke at home, even when children aren’t there.
  • Separating people who smoke from those who don’t smoke, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings does not fully protect children or adults from secondhand smoke.

To protect the children inside, houses and apartment buildings must be smokefree. Across the country, more and more multiunit housing complexes, such apartments and condominiums, are making indoor spaces smokefree. However, people who live in multiunit housing are not protected until all units and common areas are smokefree.1,9,11

Allowing people to smoke in only one room does not protect children. Smoke from halls and stairs gets inside, too.
Protecting Yourself and Your Loved Ones from Secondhand Smoke

You can help protect yourself, family, friends, and your community.

Calling a quitline can connect you with a coach who can provide support, help you make a quit plan, and more.

  • If a loved one smokes, support them by encouraging them to quit.
  • Get rid of all ashtrays and tobacco products in your home.
  • Don’t let anyone smoke in or around your house. If you have children or if you take care of children in your home, do not allow anyone to smoke there. Do not let babysitters or family and friends smoke around your children.
  • Don’t let anyone smoke in your car, even with the windows down. Putting the windows down does not protect people from secondhand smoke
  • Make sure smoking is not allowed at your child’s day care.
  • Make sure your child’s school is smokefree inside and out. All school events should be tobacco-free, and make sure the tobacco-free policy includes e-cigarettes. You can talk to teachers or school officials about enforcing these rules.
  • If your state still allows smoking in public areas, look for restaurants and other public places that do not allow smoking.
    • “No Smoking” sections in restaurants that separate people who smoke from those who don’t do not protect you or your children from secondhand smoke.
    • Ventilation, air conditioning, or air purifiers do not protect you or your children from secondhand smoke.
  • Talk to your employer about the benefits of a tobacco-free policy in your workplace.
  • Educate people who make decisions in your community about the benefits of smokefree laws and policies in public places, workplaces, and housing. Tell these leaders you support businesses going smokefree.
  • If you own or manage a business, adopt a smokefree policy for employees and customers. Find out why Going Smokefree Matters.

Protecting the people in your home also means not using other types of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

  • The aerosol from e-cigarettes is not harmless. It can contain cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals like nickel, tin, and lead, among other things.
  • E-cigarettes are not safe for children, teens, young adults, pregnant adults, or people who do not already use tobacco.

Here are some printable hand-outs on protecting children from secondhand smoke for:

Children respect and learn from your actions and words. As caregivers, we teach our children by the choices we make. What we do now can change our children’s future.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Report of the Surgeon General: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What It Means to You. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2006 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  4. Hopkins DP, Razi S, Leeks KD, Priva Kalra G, Chattopadhyay SK, Soler RE, et al. Task Force on Community Preventive Services. Smoke-Free Policies to Reduce Tobacco Use: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2010;38(2 Suppl):S275–89 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  5. Siegel M, Albers AB, Cheng DM, Biener L, Rigotti NA. Local Restaurant Smoking Regulations and the Adolescent Smoking Initiation Process: Results of a Multilevel Contextual Analysis Among Massachusetts Youth. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 2008;162(5):477–83 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  6. Institute of Medicine Committee on Secondhand Smoke Exposure and Acute Coronary Events. Secondhand Smoke Exposure and Cardiovascular Effects: Making Sense of the Evidenceexternal icon. Washington, D.C., National Academies Press 2010 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  7. National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Editionexternal icon. Research Triangle Park (NC): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 2016 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  8. Tsai J, Homa DM, Gentzke AS, Mahoney M et al. Exposure to Secondhand Smoke Among Nonsmokers—United States, 1988-2014. MMWR 2018;67(48): 1342-46 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  9. Walton K, Gentzke AS, Murphy-Hoefer R, Kenemer B, Neff LJ. Exposure to Secondhand Smoke in Homes and Vehicles Among US Youths, United States, 2011-2019. Preventing Chronic Disease 2020(17) [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  10. Wilson KM, Klein JD, Blumkin AK, Gottlieb M, Winickoff JP .Tobacco Smoke Exposure in Children Who Live in Multiunit Housing.external icon Pediatrics 2011:127(1):85-92 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].
  11. King BA, Babb SD, Tynan MA, Gerzoff RB. National and state estimates of secondhand smoke infiltration among U.S. multiunit housing residents. Nicotine and Tobacco Research 2013a;15(7):1316–21 [accessed 2021 Feb 2].