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U.S. Surgeon General Reports Indisputable Dangers of Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke can lead to disease and premature death in children and adults


Senior man smoking
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U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona has issued a strong warning about the dangers of secondhand smoke in a comprehensive scientific report.

In the report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, Carmona said there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. His report shows that nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25 to 30 percent and their risk of lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. This is a major public health concern, because nearly half of all nonsmoking Americans are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.

“The health effects of secondhand smoke exposure are more pervasive than we previously thought,” said Carmona, who noted that the original surgeon general’s report on secondhand smoke was issued in 1986. “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.”

To protect nonsmokers, eliminate all smoking indoors
The report shows that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause immediate harm. According to the report, the only way to protect nonsmokers from the dangerous chemicals in secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking indoors, because even the most sophisticated ventilation systems cannot completely eliminate secondhand smoke exposure and only smoke-free environments afford full protection.

Despite these findings, Carmona stopped short of calling for smoking bans. Instead, he said he was presenting information that would enable business owners, elected officials and the public to make informed decisions about secondhand smoke exposure. Many U.S. cities and businesses have banned smoking recently, but others have resisted for fear of losing regular customers or appearing to discriminate against smokers. The new surgeon general’s report could help to swing the debate in favor of broader smoking bans.

Secondhand smoke can cause serious health problems
Secondhand smoke exposure can cause heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults and is a known cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), respiratory problems, ear infections, and asthma attacks in infants and children, the report finds.

Secondhand smoke contains more than 50 cancer-causing chemicals, and is a known human carcinogen. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke inhale many of the same toxins as smokers. Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and increases risk for heart disease and lung cancer, the report says. The report also shows that because the bodies of infants and children are still developing, they are especially vulnerable to the poisons in secondhand smoke.

“The good news is that, unlike some public health hazards, secondhand smoke exposure is easily prevented,” Carmona said. “Smoke-free indoor environments are proven, simple approaches that prevent exposure and harm.”

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