Secondhand Smoke a Threat to All, Surgeon General Warns

It increases risk of heart disease, lung cancer and SIDS, report finds

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, June 27, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- No amount of secondhand smoke is safe.

And the only way to protect nonsmokers is through smoke-free environments. Separating smokers and nonsmokers within the same air space or relying on sophisticated ventilation systems just doesn't work.

That's the conclusion of a new U.S. Surgeon General's report issued Tuesday, which determined that nonsmokers who were exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work had a 25 percent to 30 percent increased risk of developing heart disease and a 20 percent to 30 percent increased risk for lung cancer.

"Science has proven that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Let me say that again: There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke," Dr. Richard H. Carmona, U.S. Surgeon General, said in prepared remarks. "Only smoke-free environments effectively protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure in indoor spaces," he said.

Paul G. Billings, the American Lung Association's vice president of national policy and advocacy, added: "Essentially, the Surgeon General slammed the book on any scientific debate on secondhand smoke. The evidence is clear. Secondhand smoke is harmful and needs to be eliminated."

The sweeping report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, was based on the latest research on the topic. The last comprehensive review of secondhand smoke by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services came out in 1986; that report concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in nonsmokers.

Some 126 million Americans are still exposed to secondhand smoke. The risks are well documented and include heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults as well as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), respiratory problems, ear infections and asthma attacks in infants and children. Slightly more than 20 percent of children are exposed to secondhand smoke at home.

"Breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time can damage cells and set the cancer process in motion," Carmona said. "Brief exposure can have immediate harmful effects on blood and blood vessels, potentially increasing the risk of a heart attack. Secondhand smoke exposure can quickly irritate the lungs, or trigger an asthma attack. For some people, these rapid effects can be life-threatening. People who already have heart disease or respiratory conditions are at especially high risk," he added.

According to the report, nearly half of all nonsmoking Americans are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. In 2005, an estimated 3,000 adult nonsmokers died from lung cancer as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke, 46,000 from coronary heart disease and 430 newborns from SIDS.

Secondhand smoke contains more than 50 carcinogens and is a known human carcinogen, the report said.

The report also found that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker's risk of lung cancer and heart disease by up to 30 percent. The evidence linking secondhand smoke and breast cancer, at this point, is only suggestive.

And while progress to control secondhand smoke has been made, it's not nearly enough, health officials said.

"The good news is that, unlike some public health hazards, secondhand smoke exposure is preventable," Carmona said. "A proven method exists for protecting nonsmokers from the health risks associated with secondhand smoke exposure: Avoiding places where secondhand smoke is present," he said.

According to the report, comprehensive smoking bans such as those in New York City and Boston have not hurt the hospitality industry. Also, restricting smoking in the workplace not only reduces secondhand smoke but also reduces active smoking.

Such statements are likely to fuel legislative efforts to ban smoking indoors.

"The report is going to provide an additional tool and some very robust conclusions to support smoke-free laws and ordinances across the country," Billings said. "If anything, the momentum and the pace of passing smoke-free air laws will increase as a result of the report," he said.

"Those are very powerful conclusions, because those are some of the arguments the foes of eliminating secondhand smoke try to use," Billings continued. "I think this report will rebut those kinds of claims once and for all," he added.

In the meantime, the Surgeon General has these tips on protecting yourself and your loved ones from the effects of secondhand smoke:

  • Make your home and car smoke-free.
  • Ask people not to smoke around you or your children.
  • Make sure that your children's day-care center or school is smoke-free.
  • Patronize restaurants and other businesses that are smoke-free.
  • Teach children to stay away from secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke exposure especially if you or your children have respiratory conditions, if you have heart disease, or if you are pregnant.

More information

For more on protecting yourself, your family and your friends from secondhand smoke, visit Smoke Free Homes.

SOURCES: Paul G. Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy, American Lung Association, New York City; prepared statement from Richard H. Carmona, M.D., U.S. Surgeon General; June 27, 2006, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke

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