Clearing the Air: EPA Secondhand Smoke Research Making a Difference

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. 

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