Second-Hand Smoke, First-Hand Disease

By Cheyenne Martin

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control reported approximately 18.1 percent of the U.S. population (or 42.1 million adults) smoked. It’s a staggering number, and the health risks these people will face are, by now, well-rehearsed. But if you think you are immune from lung cancer, heart disease or stroke because you don’t smoke, think again. Secondhand smoke (SHS) can be just as devastating.


When a cigarette is lit, the smoker gives off two kinds of smoke: sidestream smoke and mainstream smoke. Sidestream smoke is the tell-tale blue wisp that comes from the end of a lit cigar, cigarette or pipe. This releases a high concentration of carcinogens and, because it has smaller particles than mainstream smoke, is the most toxic. Mainstream smoke is what a smoker exhales through his mouth or nose. The two can make a deadly combination.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical compounds. At least 250 are harmful and 69 are known to cause cancer. When tobacco smoke is inhaled, no matter the amount, it instantly causes stress on the body. The vascular system (heart and blood vessels) is instantly challenged, increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. Even brief exposure can harm cells in such a way that triggers the cancer process.

SHS can kill adults and children; cause disease; cause complications during pregnancy such as low birth weight, miscarriage or stillborn births; and increase the risk of SIDS. A 20 to 30 percent increased risk for lung cancer is linked with SHS. Children exposed to SHS are at risk for smaller lungs, chronic wheezing and coughing, asthma and increased ear infections.

Almost half of non-smokers are exposed to SHS. Most of this exposure comes from the workplace. Ventilation and separate smoking sections do very little to protect non-smokers from tobacco smoke. Approximately 60 percent of children are exposed to SHS. Smoking outside the house or in a car with a window down does very little to minimize their exposure. The Surgeon General warns that the only way to avoid the risks of SHS is through strict smoke-free policies.


Alabama’s Take

The Surgeon General warns that separate smoking sections in restaurants and even well-ventilated buildings do not completely protect non-smokers from the toxins found in cigarette smoke. In light of the growing concerns over SHS-related problems, 28 states and the District of Columbia have passed no-smoking laws. Alabama passed a no-smoking law in 2003.

In Alabama, it is:

  • Illegal to smoke in public places or at public meetings, unless the organizers have set aside a designated smoking area.
  • Up to the proprietors of restaurants and bars to choose whether or not they will allow smoking. They are free to designate the entire establishment, or just a section, as non-smoking.
  • Illegal to smoke in government buildings, schools, daycares and health facilities except for in designated, well-ventilated areas.
  • A $25-$200 fine if the smoking law is violated.

Exceptions to this law include retail tobacco shops and businesses, limousines under private hire to individuals or companies, hotel and motel rooms (unless specifically labeled non-smoking) and bars and lounges.

It is within the power of local communities to pass even stronger smoking restrictions.

**Sources: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Lung Association