Health Topics

Dangers of Second-Hand Smoke

What is second-hand smoke?

Second-hand smoke (also called passive smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) is the combination of smoke from a burning cigarette and smoke exhaled by a smoker. The smoke that burns off the end of a cigarette or cigar actually contains more harmful substances than the smoke inhaled by the smoker. This means that people who don’t smoke but are regularly around those who smoke are exposed to the health risks of cigarette smoking.

How does second-hand smoke affect non-smokers?

Even if you don’t smoke but are exposed to second-hand smoke on a regular basis, your body will absorb nicotine and other harmful substances just as smokers’ bodies do. In addition, the longer you are around second-hand smoke, the greater the level of harmful substances in your body. As a result, you might have an increased risk of developing smoking-related disorders, including:

  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Emphysema
  • Eye and nasal irritation
  • Asthma

Who is at greatest risk of being harmed by second-hand smoke?

Although any person who spends a lot of time around those who smoke has an increased chance of developing a smoking-related illness, certain people are extremely susceptible to the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. These include:

Service industry workers, such as bartenders and restaurant servers. People who work in environments where they are constantly exposed to smokers might absorb carcinogens and other harmful substances from second-hand tobacco smoke on a regular basis. This puts them at greater risk of developing respiratory infections and other illnesses.

Pregnant women. Second hand-smoke harms not only the mother-to-be, but her unborn child as well. It increases both her and her baby's risk of developing lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, allergies, asthma, and other health problems.

Infants and children. Because young children can’t choose to leave a smoke-filled environment, this constant exposure makes them especially vulnerable to the health risks of second-hand smoke. Infants and children who are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke have an increased chance of developing the following conditions:

  • Frequent colds
  • Asthma
  • Chronic coughs
  • Ear infections
  • High blood pressure
  • Learning and behavior problems later in childhood

In addition, among infants up to 18 months of age, second-hand smoke is associated with as many as 300,000 cases of bronchitis and pneumonia each year.

What can I do to avoid second-hand smoke?

The following suggestions might be helpful in reducing, or even eliminating, your and your family’s exposure to second-hand smoke:

  • Whenever possible, ask visitors to your home to smoke outside.
  • Open windows and use fans to ventilate rooms.
  • Don't keep ashtrays in your home.
  • Tell babysitters and other caregivers not to smoke around your children, even if it is in their own home.
  • If you are visiting a smoker’s home with your children, try to socialize outside whenever possible.
  • If smoking is allowed where you work, talk to your employer about modifying the company's smoking policy.
  • Ask to work near other non-smokers or as far away from smokers as possible.
  • Use a fan and open windows to ventilate your workspace.
  • When staying in a hotel, ask for a non-smoking room.
  • Ask to be seated in the non-smoking sections of restaurants, and suggest to the managers that they make the restaurants smoke-free.
  • Stay informed about any changes in federal, state, and local smoking laws and become involved in strengthening those laws.

For additional information about second-hand smoke, contact the following agencies:

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
2013 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006

American Cancer Society
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30329

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights
2530 San Pablo Avenue, Suite J
Berkeley, CA 94702

National Cancer Institute
Building 31, Room 10A24
Bethesda, MD 20892

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
4676 Columbia Parkway
Cincinnati, OH 42226-1998

Office on Smoking and Health
Centers for Disease Control
Mail Stop K-50
4770 Buford Highway, NE
Atlanta, GA 30341-3724

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 37133
Washington, D.C. 20013-7133

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Information Center
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105