Secondhand Smoke Basics

How to Avoid Secondhand Smoke

Scientists have made great strides in finding ways to measure the harmful effects of cigarettes.
Scientists have made great strides in finding ways to measure the harmful effects of cigarettes.
©2006 Publications International Ltd.

On June 27, 2006, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona released an exhaustive scientific report concluding that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. In other words, even the slightest exposure to secondhand smoke increases the odds of being stricken by the health problems we outlined in the previous section.

Does this mean that when you're at a friend's house and someone lights a cigarette, you should immediately dive through a window? No -- that constitutes a larger health hazard -- but the statistics are much more dire than was originally thought.

The Surgeons General's Report on Secondhand Smoke

"The health effects of secondhand smoke exposure are more pervasive than we previously thought," Carmona said in his report. "The scientific evidence is now indisputable: Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance. It is a serious health hazard that can lead to disease and premature death in children and nonsmoking adults." This is a bold claim, but the evidence backs up Carmona.

To measure the impact of secondhand smoke, researchers generally test for a substance called cotinine. Cotinine is the compound that is produced when the body metabolizes nicotine.

Because nicotine is found almost exclusively in cigarette smoke, testing the body for cotinine levels is an accurate and dependable method for gauging a subject's exposure to secondhand smoke. Armed with this information, the report draws some shocking conclusions:

It doesn't take much. While more research is needed to know the exact atomic weight of cigarette smoke that translates into a significant health problem, the studies show that even minimal exposure results in a rise in cotinine levels. The Surgeon General concluded that any exposure results in a measurable degree of risk.

Smoking or nonsmoking? The report also proved that the conventional measures public spaces have taken to protect their nonsmoking patrons against secondhand smoke are inadequate. Tests revealed that designated smoking areas, or even air filters, are not enough to prevent a marked rise in cotinine levels. The report recommends that the only way to be safe is to dine in a completely smoke-free environment.

Children are especially vulnerable. Because they are still developing physically and tend to have higher breathing rates -- and, in turn, higher quantities of smoke entering their bodies -- children are especially at risk around secondhand smoke. According to the Environmental protections agency, secondhand smoke will:

  • Increase the number of asthma attacks and severity of symptoms in 200,000 to 1,000,000 children with asthma
  • Cause between 150,000 and 300,000 lower-respiratory-tract infections among children (under 18 months of age)
  • Be responsible for respiratory-tract infections that result in 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations of children each year

Protecting Yourself and Your Family

Obviously, the best thing to do is to avoid secondhand smoke at all costs. If you're a smoker, stop. If you are unable to quit smoking, at least refrain from lighting up in your house and around your family. Naturally, your child's daycare or school should also be a smoke-free environment. Here are some other steps you can take:

In an apartment. If you live next to someone who smokes and are worried about the health risks, try speaking to him or her and working out a peaceful solution. If your apartment building has a nonsmoking policy, ask that your landlord enforce it rigidly. If your building is not smoke-free, you could point out to your landlord that a nonsmoking building has lower insurance and maintenance costs.

The only way to eliminate the risks associated with cigarettes is to stamp those nasty butts out altogether. The only way to eliminate the risks associated with cigarettes is to stamp those nasty butts out altogether.
The only way to eliminate the risks associated with cigarettes is to stamp those nasty butts out altogether.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

At work. Most businesses have policies that protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. If your company does not have such a policy, you can work with management and labor organizations to create one.

You also can encourage your coworkers to take advantage of the many smoking-cessation programs that most companies sponsor. Finally, if there is an outdoor smoking area, it should not be adjacent to any of the exits or high-traffic areas.

While traveling. Fortunately, the government has taken care of most of this one for you. Smoking is not allowed on commercial airplanes in the United States and on flights leaving the U.S. for foreign destinations. Smoking is also prohibited on all interstate bus travel and is limited to a designated car on all trains.

However, when staying in a hotel, it is important to secure a nonsmoking room due to the amount of time that harmful cigarette-smoke chemicals can linger in the furniture. In addition, you should be aware that antismoking laws are different in each country.

Of course, the best way to avoid secondhand smoke is to live in a completely smoke-free environment. Sounds like a pipe dream, right? Well, some communities have enacted laws in an effort to realize this ideal. In our final section, we will explore the growing support for antismoking laws and the health benefits reaped by these smoking bans.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.