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Secondhand Smoke: Everyone's Health Risk

Even if you don't smoke, everyone is around to secondhand smoke at some point through everyday activities–but you can lower your risk of exposure. 

Secondhand smoke 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. Secondhand smoke contains more than 250 chemicals known to be toxic or cancer causing, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide.

Secondhand smoke is also called Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS); exposure to secondhand smoke is called involuntary smoking, or passive smoking.

It is not easy to avoid secondhand smoke because about one in four people smoke. The following list shows how secondhand smoke is harmful to yourself and your family.

The Dangers of Secondhand Smoke:

  • Secondhand smoke causes about 3,000 deaths each year from lung cancer in non-smokers.
  • Secondhand smoke causes irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
  • Secondhand smoke can also irritate the lungs, leading to coughing, excessive phlegm and chest discomfort.
  • Secondhand smoke has been estimated to cause 22,700-69,600 deaths per year from heart disease in adult nonsmokers.

Secondhand Smoke Especially Hurts Children!

  • Children who breathe secondhand smoke are more likely to suffer from pneumonia, bronchitis, and other lung diseases.
  • Children who breathe secondhand smoke have more ear infections.
  • Children who breathe secondhand smoke are more likely to develop asthma.
  • Children who have asthma and who breathe secondhand smoke have more asthma attacks.

There are an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 cases every year of infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia in infants and children under 18 months of age who breathe secondhand smoke. These result in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations!

How Can You Protect Yourself and Your Family?

This is what you can do to protect yourself and your family from secondhand smoke:

  • Don’t smoke in your home.
  • Ask other people not to smoke in your home, especially baby-sitters or others who may care for your children.
  • Choose children’s day care centers, schools, restaurants and other places you spend time in that are smoke-free.
  • Ask smokers to go outside while they smoke.
  • If someone must smoke inside, limit them to rooms where windows can be opened or fans can be used to send the smoke outside.
  • Help people who are trying to quit smoking.

What If You Smoke?

  • Never smoke around children.
  • Children are especially sensitive to the dangers of secondhand smoke.
  • If you smoke, try to smoke only in an open area away from your family.
  • Many of the substances stay in the air even after the cigarette, cigar, or pipe is gone.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself and Your Family Outside of Your Home?

  • Let family, friends and people you work with know that you do care if they smoke around you.
  • In your car, do not smoke or allow others to smoke while the windows are rolled up.
  • In restaurants and bars, ask to sit in the non-smoking area.
  • Make sure your child’s day-care, school and after-school programs are smoke-free.
  • Ask your employer to make sure you do not have to breathe other people’s smoke at work.

Quit for yourself and loved ones … call your local American Lung Association at 1-800-LUNG-USA (1-800-586-4872) to find out more about how to stop smoking for good. The Lung Association is offering a new way to stop smoking through its Freedom From Smoking® online smoking cessation clinic. The program is based on the Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking® program, which has already helped thousands of smokers quit smoking for good. The Freedom From Smoking® online smoking cessation clinic can be accessed day or night, seven days a week, on any schedule a smoker chooses.

Visit and stop smoking today! This is the most important step you can take to protect yourself and your family from the dangers of secondhand smoke.


The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: Children are Hurt by Secondhand Smoke. A Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006.

California Environmental Protection Agency. Health Effects of Exposure to ETS. June 2005.

U.S, Department of Agriculture. Tobacco Outlook. Economic Research Service, April 2005.

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