Silent Killer

Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in the country, killing 53,000 nonsmokers in the U.S. each year. Below you will find information and resources to protect yourself and your family from secondhand smoke.

What is Secondhand Smoke?

Secondhand smoke (SHS), also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), is a mixture of smoke given off by the burning end of cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, and smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers that can be involuntarily inhaled by nonsmokers. In 1986, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that SHS is a major health risk to nonsmokers. In 1992, SHS was classified as a Group A carcinogen, which is known to cause cancer in humans. SHS contains over 4000 chemicals including formaldehyde, cyanide, arsenic, carbon monoxide, methane, and benzene. Among the chemicals identified in cigarette smoke, 11 are known human carcinogens.

Prevalence of secondhand smoke exposure

Twenty-one percent (21%) of all youth in middle school and twenty-six percent (26%) of all youth in high school are exposed to SHS at home or in another building every day. Sixty-three percent (63%) of all youth are exposed to SHS at home or in another building at least once a week. Thirteen percent (13%) of all youth in middle school and 15% of all youth in high school are exposed to SHS in a car every day. Forty-six percent (46%) of all youth are exposed to SHS in a car at least once a week. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of adult non-smokers live with a smoker. In 2002, nearly one quarter (24%) of all adults in the U.S. lived with a smoker. Approximately the same percentage. Twenty-three percent (23%) reported that someone had smoked in their home during the past week.

The impact of secondhand smoke on infants and children

SHS exposure can be particularly damaging for infants and children, whose respiratory rates are higher than those of adults. In the first two years of life, children who are exposed to SHS from parental smoking have more than a 50% increased risk of getting bronchitis and pneumonia. Children and adolescents with at least one smoking parent have a 25 to 40% increased risk of chronic respiratory symptoms such as cough, wheeze and breathlessness. Among children ages 4 to 6 high levels of SHS exposure were associated with having asthma. Among school aged children, SHS exposure can cause new cases of asthma or worsen existing asthma.

The impact of secondhand smoke on adults

Among adults, SHS exposure causes approximately 53,000 deaths a year. SHS exposure is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. SHS exposure is responsible for about 3000 lung cancer deaths annually in U.S. nonsmokers. Between 30,000 and 60,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease are attributable to SHS exposure each year.


Secondhand smoke policies

In the Home - Having rules about not smoking in the home can substantially reduce health risks to children who live with smokers. Total household bans on smoking have been shown to reduce SHS exposure in adolescents who lived with a smoker by ninety-two percent (92%). Although 60 percent of all kids report that smoking is not allowed in their home, only 32 percent of kids who live with a smoker report smoking bans at home. This indicates that household smoking bans are least common where they can do the most good.

In the Workplace - Workplaces are taking the initiative to protect workers from SHS exposure: the prevalence of smoke-free workplace policies has increased from 46% in 1993 to 69% in 1999.14

Other Benefits of Smoke-Free Policies

In addition to protecting against SHS exposure, studies indicate that prohibiting smoking in the home and workplace encourage smokers to quit and reduce the number of cigarettes consumed per day among smokers.