What is secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles that include:

  • Smoke from a burning cigarette, cigar, or pipe tip
  • Smoke that has been exhaled or breathed out by the person or people smoking
  • More than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer.

Most exposure to secondhand smoke occurs in homes and workplaces. Secondhand smoke exposure also continues to occur in public places such as restaurants, bars, and casinos and in private vehicles.

Health Effects – Children

In children, secondhand smoke causes:

  • ear infections
  • more frequent and severe asthma attacks
  • respiratory symptoms
  • respiratory infections
  • a greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome

In children aged 18 months or younger, secondhand smoke exposure is responsible for:

  • an estimated 150,000 – 300,000 new cases of bronchitis and pneumonia annually
  • approximately 7,500 – 15,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States


Health Effect – Adults

In adults who have never smoked, secondhand smoke can cause heart disease and/or lung cancer.

Heart Disease

  • For nonsmokers, breathing secondhand smoke has immediate harmful effects on the cardiovascular system that can increase the risk for heart attack. People who already have heart disease are at high risk.
  • Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their heart disease risk by 25-30%.
  • Secondhand smoke exposure causes an estimated 46,000 heart disease deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States.

Lung Cancer

Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their lung cancer risk by 20-30%.

  • There is no risk-free level of contact with secondhand smoke; even brief exposure can be harmful to health.

What can be done about secondhand smoke?

Local, state, and federal authorities can enact public policies to protect people from secondhand smoke and protect children from tobacco-caused diseases and addiction. Because there are no safe levels of secondhand smoke, it is important that any such policies be as strong as possible, and that they do not prevent action at other levels of government.

Steps for Avoiding Smoke

Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke can protect your health and that of your children, family and friends.

Know the Risks

  • Secondhand smoke is a very serious health threat.
  • Passive smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States today.
  • Smoke is especially dangerous for children and pregnant women.

Special Risks for Children

  • Exposure to passive smoke can cause asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Children with colds, flu, asthma or other illnesses can be made more ill by smoke.
  • Children can be burned by falling ashes or lighted cigarettes.
  • Passive smoke is also linked to miscarriages, low birthweight and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Protect the Children in Your Life

  • Insist on nonsmoking daycare.
  • Set up a smoke-free home

Talk with Smokers

Talk with smokers in your life. Agree together on ways to deal with secondhand smoke. Remember, you have a
right to speak up, and very good reasons for doing so!

A Good Approach

Most smokers want to quit, but smoking is a hard addiction to break. If you approach smokers in a spirit of
collaboration, chances are better than some agreement can be worked out.

When you talk with smokers:

  • Let them know how you care about their comfort and health, and that you believe they also care about
  • Avoid being critical or judgmental about their smoking.
  • Invite them to work with you in coming up with a fair solution.
  • Listen carefully when they respond. Ask them about their ideas.
  • Try a little give-and-take. For example, if you want to set up a smoke-free home, and your spouse is willing to limit smoking to one room, this might be a good compromise.
  • Leave the door open for more discussions if you don’t come to an agreement at first.
  • Be available to support a smoker in quitting if he or she asks for your help.

You Can Practice

If you’re not sure how to bring up this issue with the smokers in your life, you can practice beforehand.
Some things to try:

  • Make a list of your reasons for talking to the smoker, and mark a star next to the most important.
  • Have an imaginary conversation with the smoker to work out what you will say.
  • Talk to a friend and ask for suggestions or ideas.
  • Have somebody “role play” with you while you practice.
  • Talk to someone you know who smokes and ask for his or her advice.

If a Smoker Lives in the Home

  • Ask the person to smoke outside.
  • Set up one “smoking area” in the home (a room with a door that can be closed).
  • Keep windows open and air the home frequently.

Smoking Visitors

  • Ask them to smoke outside provide ashtrays on porch or deck.
  • Remove ashtrays from the home.


  • Make your own car a smoke-free space.
  • In other people’s cars, ask that people not smoke.
  • Keep windows open if someone is smoking.