Smoke Out
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By Lisa Seachrist Chiu

Smoke Out

U.S. Surgeon General's report finds no safe level of secondhand smoke

By Lisa Seachrist Chiu


The debate is over: Secondhand smoke isn’t merely annoying; it’s a serious health hazard. That’s the message U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Richard Carmona delivered in June on the health effects of secondhand smoke.

Because his report concludes that there is no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure, Carmona urged citizens to use the information to enact local smoking bans.

While Carmona, who stepped down as surgeon general in July, fell short of calling for federal action, he emphasized that the “science is clear”: Secondhand smoke exposure causes heart disease and lung cancer in adults, and sudden infant death syndrome and respiratory problems in children.

Carmona’s report is the first surgeon general’s report to focus solely on secondhand smoke since 1986, when a report concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer among nonsmoking adults and severe respiratory problems in children.

While exposure to secondhand smoke has plummeted in the past 20 years, 126 million American adults and children will continue to be exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes and workplaces this year. The current report concludes that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has measurable negative effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and that banning indoor smoking is the only way to protect nonsmokers from hazardous chemicals in secondhand smoke.

The unequivocal nature of the surgeon general’s conclusions could help propel anti-smoking initiatives facing voters in Arizona, Nevada and Ohio this November. At the time of publication, such smoking restrictions were already in place in 14 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington, as well as in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“There are really no excuses left at this point,” says Danny McGoldrick, the vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit organization. “The science couldn’t be any more clear. This report is going to speed up efforts to provide [smoke-free public spaces].”

In Arizona, Nevada and Ohio, the proposed smoking bans would prohibit smoking in all public spaces and workplaces. Seeking fewer restrictions, the tobacco industry and some businesses are pushing for their own measures that would permit continued smoking in bars, bowling alleys, and places with separate smoking and nonsmoking facilities.

For instance, the industry-supported organization Smoke Less Ohio has proposed an amendment to the Ohio constitution that would limit smoking restrictions. Jacob Evans, a spokesman for the group, says its amendment is “a reasonable, common sense approach that respects the rights of business owners to decide what’s best for business” and that is not at odds with protecting nonsmokers.

The American Lung Association’s vice president for national policy and advocacy, Paul Billings, disagrees, citing the new surgeon general’s report. “These are very powerful, forthright conclusions that will be very helpful in making the case for smoke-free air laws,” he says.

“The surgeon general’s report has already helped us,” says Shelly Kiser, the campaign communications director for SmokeFreeOhio at the American Lung Association of Ohio. “It makes our case that separate smoking and nonsmoking sections don’t work.”

While voters in the three states decide on smoking restrictions in November, the report is sure to spark more smoke-free initiatives, according to both McGoldrick and Billings. The report’s conclusions could also prompt Congress to act, but McGoldrick and Billings prefer grassroots success. “Right now, the issue is being handled at the state and local levels,” says McGoldrick. “Congress might pass a weaker federal law that would pre-empt the stronger state and local measures.”