Avoiding Invisible Dangers — Steering Clear of Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke refers to the smoke exhaled by a smoker, as well as the smoke from a burning cigarette, cigar, or pipe. According to the CDC, secondhand smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which can cause cancer. Even brief exposure is dangerous.

In this article, we will dive deeper into understanding the significant health risk of exposure to secondhand smoke. We will also learn recommendations on how to minimize risks through personal actions and how to talk to a person who exposes you to smoke in the vicinity.

Secondhand Smoking Cigarettes

Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke Exposure

Secondhand smoke, also known as passive smoking or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), refers to the inhalation of cigarette smoke by people other than the person actively smoking. Exposure to secondhand smoke carries serious health risks that you should be aware of.

As shown in the list below, secondhand smoke has been linked to major conditions like lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses in children:

Lung Cancer

Several research studies have concluded that secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer in nonsmokers by 20-30%. The longer the exposure, the higher the risk. The EPA has classified secondhand smoke as a Group A carcinogen, meaning there is clear evidence it causes cancer in humans.

Secondhand smoke is estimated to cause over 3,000 deaths due to lung cancer each year in the U.S. among nonsmokers. Workers in environments that allow smoking, like bars and restaurants, face an even higher risk of developing lung cancer.

Heart Disease & Heart Attacks

Exposure to secondhand smoke thickens the blood, narrows arteries, and causes inflammation – all raising the risk of heart problems. According to the CDC, secondhand smoke increases nonsmokers’ heart disease risk by 25-30% and heart attack risk by as much as 42%.

Respiratory Illnesses in Children

Secondhand smoke aggravates asthma and is linked to coughing, phlegm, wheezing, and breathlessness in children. Kids exposed to secondhand smoke also face more ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, and other lung illnesses.

Parents who smoke put their children at higher risk of SIDS, meningitis, chronic respiratory conditions, and slower lung growth. Secondhand smoke takes a major toll on children’s health.

Why Secondhand Smoke Is Dangerous

There are a few key reasons why secondhand smoke is so hazardous to health:

  • It contains over 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic. These include formaldehyde, benzene, polonium-210, and vinyl chloride – substances known to cause cancer.
  • There is no safe level of exposure. Even low levels of secondhand smoke are dangerous over time. Toxins build up in the body.
  • It is particularly harmful to vulnerable groups like children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with existing health conditions. Their bodies are less equipped to handle the toxins.

Avoiding Exposure in Different Settings

Breathing in secondhand smoke can be very harmful, so it’s important to limit exposure as much as possible, especially for children and teens. There are practical steps you can take to reduce secondhand smoke risks in different environments:

At Home

If someone you live with frequently smokes cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe indoors, politely request that they only smoke outside and away from doors and windows. Completely banning smoking inside your home and vehicles can also help protect family members. Using high-efficiency filters in heating/cooling systems, keeping windows open, running ceiling fans, and using portable air purifiers helps remove lingering secondhand smoke toxins like benzene, formaldehyde, and lead.

In Public

When out shopping, dining, or gathering in public spaces, look for and choose establishments clearly marked with “smoke-free environment” signage. Pay particular attention near building entrances, patios, parks, beaches, bus stops, and other areas where people sometimes congregate to smoke. Standing far away from these hotspots reduces inhaling toxic cigarette fumes. Supporting smoke-free policies helps encourage social norms around not smoking in public venues.

In Apartments/Condos

If you live in close proximity to neighbors who smoke, talk to your landlord or building manager about making the entire property smoke-free to protect residents. Smoke can infiltrate common areas and other units through shared walls and ventilation systems. Sealing cracks around your own unit’s doors and windows and using fans and air purifiers also prevents secondhand smoke from entering. Advocating for comprehensive smoke-free multi-unit housing policies improves air quality for everyone.

At Work

If your workplace currently allows smoking on the premises or indoors, provide educational materials to your employer about implementing a smoke-free campus policy that requires designated outdoor smoking areas far away from doors, windows, walkways, and air intakes. For staff that smoke, promote quit-smoking programs and other supportive resources. If indoor smoking is still allowed, request a smoke-free work area for health reasons. Opening windows, using fans, and portable air filters can also minimize exposure to cigarette toxins during the workday. Think about organizing colleagues to jointly make healthy, smoke-free adjustments.

Implementing small changes like these at home, work, in public spaces, and where you live can help lower the risks of developing health issues from prolonged secondhand smoke exposure. Taking preventative action lets you and your loved ones breathe easier.

Politely Asking Someone to Refrain from Smoking in Your Personal Space

Exposure to secondhand smoke, even for a short while, is harmful to health. Because smoke compounds are harmful, kindly urge someone who is lighting up a cigarette next to you to stop. Explain politely that secondhand smoke accumulates over time in the body and increases the chance of lung cancer, heart problems, asthma attacks, infections, and other conditions, even though addiction makes quitting very difficult. Prioritize health over personal desire while making your request. There are several polite ways to ask them to move on.

  • I apologize; could you please refrain from smoking so close to me? The effects of secondhand smoke on health are a concern of mine.
  • Would you please smoke somewhere else, away from others, for my health?
  • Sadly, this smoke is flying directly at me. Would you be willing to step away while smoking?

If they appear open to it, you might also:

  • Distribute informational leaflets in smoke-free public areas.
  • Provide resources for quitting information if they are interested.

Even though creating a smoke-free environment aids in the reduction of pollutants, you might need to leave the area if someone disregards your kind request. Compassionately communicating concerns can lead to more thoughtful behavior because, when presented in a courteous and judgment-free manner, health risks frequently exceed cravings. Gentle, non-aggressive conversation might inspire minor improvements.

Taking Legal and Political Action

Secondhand smoke poses serious and widespread health risks, but there are actions you can take beyond your personal environment to avoid exposure on a broader scale. One effective strategy is to support and advocate for laws and policies that limit smoking in all public spaces and workplaces.

The Healthy People 2030 goals from the Department of Health and Human Services aim to increase the proportion of smoke-free worksites, restaurants, bars, casinos, indoor public places, and multi-unit housing across the country. Reaching these targets would protect millions more Americans from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Getting Involved Politically

There are a few key ways you can get involved politically to support smoke-free spaces:

Contact Legislators

Contact your state and local legislators to advocate for strong, clean indoor air laws. Comprehensive laws that prohibit smoking indoors in all workplaces, restaurants, bars, and casinos are the most effective way to protect large populations from secondhand smoke. Make calls and send emails urging elected officials to sponsor and vote for 100% smoke-free legislation.

Attend Public Hearings

Attend town hall meetings and public hearings, and bring up the issue of secondhand smoke exposure. Share personal stories and scientific evidence about the severe health dangers. Urge officials to pass 100% smoke-free ordinances to create more healthy communities.

Join Advocacy Groups

You can also join local chapters of national groups like the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society that lobby for laws restricting smoking indoors. These organizations provide opportunities for grassroots activism and contacting lawmakers.

Share Your Story

Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper detailing the need for comprehensive indoor smoking bans and the dangers of secondhand smoke. Sharing your experience with secondhand smoke helps put a human face to the problem.

Every action counts when it comes to raising awareness about secondhand smoke and pushing for policy change. Even small efforts can motivate political leaders to take action.


Secondhand smoke poses severe health risks, but we can reduce exposure through personal actions and political advocacy. Implement small changes like requesting smoke-free spaces, using air purifiers, and avoiding smoking areas. If directly exposed, politely ask smokers to refrain out of health concerns. Compassionately share dangers to inspire considerate behavior changes.

Additionally, support clean indoor air laws by contacting legislators, attending hearings, joining advocacy groups, and sharing personal stories. With proactive personal choices and political involvement, we can work towards smoke-free communities, better health, and cleaner air for all.