The Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke

The majority of the population can identify with a situation in which one is enjoying a nice meal or a ball game when they are suddenly overcome with the unpleasant odor of tobacco smoke. This may not seem to affect some people, some may simply be annoyed, while others who are particularly sensitive to the effects may become enraged. Whichever category one may fall under, they all have one thing in common: health is at risk. Whether sensitive to smoke or not, no one can escape the harmful, even potentially fatal, effects of smoke.

Effects of Secondhand Smoke

According to the American Lung Association, “Secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar and the smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers.”1 Even when smokers take cigarette breaks in an assigned location, once the cigarette is crushed, they are free to roam wherever they please, and they continue to breathe out the toxic smoke. Though smoking in a designated area, these smokers will intoxicate anyone exposed to them after their smoking session.

Many unfortunate results arise from this habit. Secondhand smoke does not only exist during the actual smoking of tobacco products but remains in the air even hours after the last puff. Everyday victims often inhale secondhand smoke involuntarily and unknowingly. While it may be widespread knowledge that cancer can be contracted through secondhand smoke due to the cancer-causing agent Carcinogen A, it is also true that asthma, respiratory infections, and other illnesses such as colds and bronchitis can arise from this dangerous activity.

Any exposure to secondhand smoke, despite the duration, is harmful to the body. There is no safe allotment of exposure. The American Lung Association explains that, “Short exposures to second hand smoke can cause blood platelets to become stickier, damage the lining of blood vessels, decrease coronary flow velocity reserves, and reduce heart rate variability, potentially increasing the risk of heart attack.”1 Research is also being conducted on a possible link between secondhand smoke and a hardening of the arteries causing strokes.


Most people understand to some degree that tobacco smoke is harmful to the body. In fact, of the 4,000 chemicals in tobacco, more than 250 are harmful, and at least 50 are known to cause cancer. The American Lung Association found that, “Secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 46,000 heart disease deaths in adult nonsmokers in the United States each year.”1 The heart and lungs are the organs typically affected by smoke inhalation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that, “Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their heart disease risk by 25–30% and their lung cancer risk by 20–30%.”3

Smokers must beware of whom their actions are affecting. They could not only be slowly killing themselves but innocent bystanders as well, and adults are certainly not the only ones damaged by the effects of secondhand smoke. The American Lung Association goes on to say that, “Secondhand smoke is especially harmful to young children. Secondhand smoke is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year, and causes 430 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths in the United States annually.”1 The National Cancer Institute explains that, “Being exposed to secondhand smoke slows the growth of children’s lungs and can cause them to cough, wheeze, and feel breathless.”4 Additionally, pregnant women exposed to secondhand smoke have a heightened risk of giving birth to low weight babies.

Everyone exposed to secondhand smoke is at risk for contracting diseases, but some are particularly agitated by these toxins, such as asthmatics. The American Cancer Society reports that secondhand smoke “increases in the number and severity of asthma attacks in about 200,000 to 1 million children who have asthma.”2 Smokers obviously have no innate sense of whether or not a bystander suffers from asthma, and they should not pose the threat of causing an attack. Additionally, secondhand smoke immediately affects the heart and blood vessels despite the amount of exposure.

The dangers of secondhand smoke are real and widespread among the population. It is unfortunate when people who are taking the proper measures to maintain good health are powerless to prevent this disease-causing invasion.

What Can You Do?

Once informed about the dangers associated with secondhand smoke, it is difficult to ignore the next deep breath of toxic fumes that are inhaled when we pass a smoker in a public area. Anyone can lobby for change in this unhealthy practice. Fifteen states have already passed legislations to ban smoking in any public place including restaurants and sporting events. Several other states are in the process of passing similar laws. Secondhand smoke is becoming less acceptable in our society. For those states that continue to permit this practice, individuals can take matters into their own hands to prevent this toxic invasion from spreading to their facilities.

NO SMOKING SIGNS can be purchased and displayed where smokers typically congregate, leaving no opportunity for carcinogens to invade non-smoking, health-conscious citizens. Smoke-free areas, particularly restaurants, are very attractive to consumers with asthma, allergies, or extra sensitivity to smoke. It is extremely beneficial for such people to have a safe haven where they know they will be free of not only an irritating, but also harmful environment.

Paul Galla, President