Second-Hand Smoke

Too Long; Didn't Read

Second-hand smoke is tobacco smoke that comes from someone else who is smoking. It can cause heart disease, lung cancer and other chronic diseases in non-smokers. Information that links chronic disease to second-hand smoke is much more common than it was during the first half of the 20th century. That said, laws that ban smoking in public places, as well as smoke-free policies in the workplace, have been created.

Involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke, also known as passive smoke or second-hand smoke, has the same devastating health consequences for non-smokers as smoking does for smokers. Second-hand smoke is a combination of main-stream smoke that is exhaled by smokers and side-stream smoke that comes from the end of burning cigarettes — or other tobacco products. The only way to protect non-smokers from passive smoke is to eliminate smoking at home, as well as in the workplace and other public places (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006).

In 1972, the United States Surgeon General's report recognized second-hand smoke as a potential public health problem, but information was limited. Since then, however, evidence that links chronic disease to passive smoke has accumulated. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, about 50,000 people die each year from exposure to second-hand smoke in the United States. Passive smoke contributes to cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, as well as all other diseases associated with smoking (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006).

Second-hand smoke is a carcinogen. It contains thousands of chemical compounds (for example, ammonia, carbon monoxide, cyanide, formaldehyde and nicotine), as well as particulate material (solid and liquid particles suspended in air). Some of those compounds are known to cause cancer. By 1986, a causal link between passive smoke and lung cancer in non-smokers was well-established. For example, lung cancer risk in non-smokers married to smokers is 25 percent higher than non-smokers married to non-smokers (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006).

Children who are exposed to second-hand smoke have increased incidence of ear infections, respiratory infections and asthma, as well as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In some cases, exposure can reduce pulmonary function in children, which can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adult life. In addition to having severe health problems at a young age, some of those children will become smokers (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006).

In the 1930s and 1940s, about half of all adults smoked cigarettes in the United States, including doctors and nurses. It was common to see nurses smoking in hospitals; every patient had an ashtray on their nightstand; and doctors would often smoke while consulting with their patients. In fact, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company built an entire advertising campaign using the slogan, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette" (Gardner & Brandt, 2006). It's not hard to imagine why smoking was considered normal.

Smoking was permitted almost everywhere: you could smoke on buses, planes and trains, as well as in bars, restaurants, and school buildings. Involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke was routine. By the 1980s, however, attitudes began to shift as information about the health consequences of second-hand smoke became much more common. Since then, smoke-free policies have been implemented in government offices, hospitals and universities, as well as in the workplace (Cummings & Proctor, 2014).


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coordinating Center for Health Promotion, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health. (2006). The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of The Surgeon General. Retrieved from The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, HHS, CDC.
  2. Gardner, M. N., & Brandt, A. M. (2006). "The Doctors' Choice Is America's Choice": The Physician in US Cigarette Advertisements, 1930-1953. American Journal of Public Health, 96(2), 222-232. The Doctors' Choice Is America's Choice
  3. Cummings, K. M., & Proctor, R. N. (2014). The Changing Public Image of Smoking in the United States: 1964-2014. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention: a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology, 23(1), 32-36. The Changing Public Image of Smoking in the United States

This section contains a list of references for the information that's used on Second-Hand Smoke. Some references include a link that can be used to open the original source in a separate browser window.