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Clearing the Air: EPA Secondhand Smoke Research Making a Difference

2014 February 4
Bob Perciasepe

February 4, 2014
2:33 pm EDT

Today, no-smoking policies have become so widespread that we hardly think twice when we’re enjoying a meal at a restaurant in a smoke-free environment.

Millions of Americans benefit from these policies, which have significantly reduced exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in public spaces. A few recent studies show us that further reducing exposure can save the U.S. $10 billion annually in healthcare costs and wages lost to sick leave.

Secondhand smoke, passive smoking, side stream smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) all refer to the same thing: the smoke exhaled by a smoker or given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe, or cigar.  Whatever you call it, thanks to EPA scientists we know that exposure to such smoke threatens our health—and is especially risky for those most vulnerable like older Americans and our kids.

Through their research, our scientists released a landmark health assessment in 1992, The Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders, that found that secondhand smoke leads to serious health complications, and even premature death. The assessment concluded that infants and young children were especially sensitive to secondhand smoke exposure, leading to more respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia, harming lower lung function, and worsening symptoms of asthma.

Grounded in science, the EPA study served as a rallying point for efforts by EPA, other Federal health organizations, and private entities to reduce public exposure to secondhand smoke. A 2006 Surgeon General report on the consequences of tobacco smoke exposure noted EPA’s leadership. The findings sparked action, and that action has had a major positive impact on millions of people; leading to cleaner, healthier air—particularly indoors. According to the Aspen Institute, clearing the air of secondhand smoke is one of EPA’s top 10 accomplishments in its first 40 years of existence.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General report on smoking, our partners at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released a scientific report on the health consequences of smoking and our 50 years of progress, and also released this consumer guide along with it.

The report delivers some astonishing facts—secondhand smoke actually contains higher levels of cancer causing substances than smoke directly inhaled by the smoker, including benzene, formaldehyde, catechol and N-nitrosamines.

More than 20 million Americans have died as a result of smoking since the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health was issued in 1964. Most of those deaths were of adults who smoked, but an incredible 2.5 million were of nonsmokers who died because they breathed secondhand smoke.

It’s likely our children won’t remember a time when they had to choose between a smoking and non-smoking section at a restaurant—a testament to the incredible progress we’ve made in the last 50 years. But for the sake of the health of generations to come, we can do more. Let’s continue to rely on sound science and commonsense policy, and let’s aim to make our next generation as healthy and free from secondhand smoke as we can.

Appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the U.S. EPA’s Deputy Administrator, Bob Perciasepe continues a career spanning nearly four decades as one of the nation’s leading environmental and public policy figures. An expert on environmental stewardship, advocacy, public policy, and national resource and organizational management, Perciasepe is widely respected within both the environmental and U.S. business communities. Perciasepe holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources from Cornell University and a master’s degree in planning and public administration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Kathleen Schomaker permalink
    February 5, 2014

    So pleased to know our EPA is staying on top of this health hazard!

    I have at times thought we have completed our social transition away from prevalent smoking and second-hand smoke. Yet, I have noticed what appears to be an increase in smoking among young people alongside a persistence among some older people in my generation. I find myself walking through the fog of second-hand smoke more frequently outside of public buildings and on crowded sidewalks. And I worry about young parents who are smoking around their children, as my father did when I was a child.

    Why would we want to add to our healthcare expenses the costs of adverse effects from second-hand smoke?
    Kath Schomaker, Executive Director
    Gray Is Green

  2. Roger Q Callaway permalink
    February 6, 2014

    So why doesn’t the government ban the production and sale of tobacco? Why don’t they require the tobacco companies to publish a list of all chemicals used in the paper and the tobacco? Why did the tobacco settlement increase the profits of the tobacco companies and the taxes collected by the government? I’ll tell you why. Our government is corrupt.

  3. Alan Smith permalink
    February 6, 2014

    Second- hand cigarette smoke is now much less of a problem but overall little has been achieved as the more dangerous wood smoke has been growing in urban centres. EPA approved wood stoves have done nothing to improve smoke levels in urban centres.

    One has to commend Montreal on banning any further installation of wood burning appliances and giving residents until 2020 to dispose of the filthy things.
    Alberta Director Canadian Clean Air Alliance

  4. chris powell permalink
    February 6, 2014

    Thank you so much Mr. Perciasepe for taking a leadership position on this important issue! As a government employee, I know that isn’t easy, I have become increasing concerned as I also walk through a fog of smoke to enter my government building. I predict that your information will be followed by others expressing concern about second hand smoke.

  5. Matt Harper permalink
    February 10, 2014

    I have thought about “Where do we still get exposed to second-hand smoke?” In some of my observations, I’ve been exposed to the second hand smoke at the bus stop, and walking down the street outside downtown areas. I have even started to measure my exposure from second hand smoke by walking downtown with a mobile air pollution monitor. The results are always pretty dramatic when I see how the instrument spikes out when I’m near the smokers. You can view my results by going to website, and filtering for light scattering measurements by M903 nephelometer, or by filtering by my username:

    It seems that the problem of second-hand smoke has shifted away from our restaurants and that is good. But the problem still exists. Do we have any data on where non-smokers are exposed to second-hand smoke the most?

  6. David permalink
    February 16, 2014

    Why is there no link to the 2006 report?

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