The scourge of secondhand smoke

First Posted: 2/8/2015

FEBRUARY 6, 2015 — Three decades ago, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop awakened Americans to the dangers of all that smoke drifting around the office, the airline cabin, the car, the restaurant. Those thin but low clouds weren’t just annoying because they made your clothes and skin reek. Secondhand smoke, Koop explained, could sicken or kill:

“It is now clear that disease risk due to the inhalation of tobacco smoke is not limited to the individual who is smoking, but can extend to those who inhale tobacco smoke emitted into the air,” Koop reported. Many smokers scoffed. Many people who lived and worked with them didn’t know whether to invoke Koop’s warning or ignore it and hope for the best.

Flash forward to 2015: Many people jaunt from home to work to restaurant, movie, concert, casino or ballgame, without catching a single whiff of cigarette smoke. Offices are smoke-free. So are bars and restaurants and parks. Not as many kids grow up in homes with parents who smoke there. Guests don’t plop down on the sofa and reflexively ask, “Mind if I smoke?” They know the answer. Ashtrays have all but vanished.

Those of us enjoying every lungful of clean air may forget, however, that many Americans still suffer serious health hazards of secondhand smoke. A new and startling statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Some 58 million Americans — 1 in 4 nonsmokers — are still exposed to secondhand smoke. Many of these are children, particularly African-American children. Thoughts on that in a moment.

Yes, more Americans are quitting cigarettes. And that means secondhand smoke exposure is tapering off. Just 15 years ago, half of all Americans were exposed to secondhand smoke. So the latest numbers, essentially a reduction of that fraction to one-quarter, are encouraging.

But those 58 million people still suffer the risks of secondhand smoke, and few of them do it willingly.

They suffer because of a patchwork of smoking bans across the country: About 1 in 3 Americans still lives in an area that allows smoking in some bars or restaurants, according to the Americans Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

Many suffer because they live in lower-income rental housing where smoke seeps from one unit to another.

Or they suffer because they live in homes with smokers who can’t or won’t take their deadly habit outside.

Or because they can’t convince an addicted loved one to quit.

And millions of children suffer because their parents still smoke. Two in 5 children are exposed to secondhand smoke, the CDC says. There’s a huge racial disparity to this: An astonishing 68 percent of African-American children are exposed to secondhand smoke. Those levels are far higher than exposure among white children, 37 percent, or Hispanic children, 30 percent.

Those children sucking down fumes remain at risk because no level of secondhand smoke is harmless. People who breathe secondhand smoke are more likely to die from heart disease or lung cancer, researchers say. The smoke causes respiratory infections and asthma in children. Secondhand smoke kills more than 400 infants and 41,000 adult nonsmokers every year, the CDC reports. We expect to learn in the future, as more Americans wise up and stop smoking, that that fewer people will be sickened or die from secondhand smoke.

For now, however, this is a continuing public health crisis that still demands attention, decades after scientists aired out the dangers of cigarette smoking.

Smokers know they’re killing themselves with every puff. They can’t or won’t stop. But let’s not forget those who have no choice but to suffer the consequences.

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