According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking rates have dropped significantly in the past fifteen years, from 21 percent of Americans in 2005 to just 14 percent of Americans in 2017.
Unfortunately, thanks to the rise in legal weed and popularity of e-cigarettes and vaping devices, there’s more smoke and aerosol than ever in the air we breathe. Which means that even though fewer people may be smoking, there’s a greater change that you’ll be exposed to secondhand smoke and vape.
What’s the harm?
“Most people do not recognize quite how dangerous smoke from a cigarette is to human health,” says Dr. David Utley, MD, a cancer surgeon based in Redwood City, CA. “Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 toxins, more than 50 of which lead directly to serious disease states.”
For instance, secondhand smoke greatly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, since smoke inhalation makes blood platelets sticky, which inhibits blood flow and exacerbates clotting.
Aside from heart attack and stroke, the risks of secondhand smoke are enormous and include: lung cancer, pre-term delivery in pregnant women, bronchitis and worse asthma in children, and even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). To put those risks into context, more than half of all residents of California, the nation’s most populated state, are exposed to some form of secondhand smoke.
Making matters worse, you don’t even have to be around secondhand smoke constantly for it to impact your health. According to the CDC, even momentary exposure to secondhand smoke has a negative effect on the body.
Are other kinds of secondhand smoke safer?
Many smokers make the mistake of switching from cigarettes to vape products thinking it will curb the risk of disease. With vape and e-cigarettes, e-juice from a cartridge (usually containing nicotine) is aerosolized to produce aerosol, rather than smoke, which the user inhales. But although vaping might seem like a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, it’s still dangerous.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Learn more about how to protect yourself and your family, including your right to a truly smoke-free home.
Secondhand vape contains several harmful emissions like formaldehyde, heavy metals like nickel and lead, and sometimes a chemical flavoring called diacetyl—the same chemical that creates the buttery flavor in microwave popcorn (surprise, it’s not real butter)—which has been linked to serious chronic lung disease when inhaled. Not surprisingly, exposure to these chemicals causes severe irritation in the lungs, which worsens conditions like asthma.
Who’s most at risk?
While men are more likely than women to light up, it’s their families who suffer the effects of secondhand smoke. A stunning 23 million children—around 35 percent of the kids in the United States—have been exposed to secondhand smoke at some point in their lives, which not only affects their short-term health, but also stunts their overall development.
Studies have shown that secondhand smoke exposure can stunt children’s lung growth. Worse, chemicals in secondhand smoke can even interfere with how an infant’s brain regulates breathing, which makes the threat of SIDS even scarier.*
What’s the solution?
So, how can people prevent serious illness and possible death? The answer is simple, doctors say: Quit.
“Smoking cessation is the only solution to combat firsthand and secondhand smoke exposure,” Utley says. “I encourage [users] to consider the effects of their smoking on their families—including their children—and their friends.”
Okay, but what if you aren’t a smoker? How can you limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and keep yourself and your family safe? It’s tough, but not impossible.
30 percent of high school students report exposure to tobacco smoke or e-cigarette aerosol while in a room.**
For those regularly exposed to secondhand smoke in public or private places, the best thing to do is to check on your local smoke-free laws. California, for example, maintains an exhaustive list of the policies of every city in the state.
You might be surprised to find out how often you’re walking through vape clouds in places where it’s actually illegal to smoke in the first place. In many cases, you can contact a landlord or business owner and request that they make their property smoke-free.
Finally, be your own biggest advocate. Thanks to strong work by its citizens and lawmakers, California has some of the most comprehensive smoke-free laws in the country, and is an example other states should hope to follow. However, that work is being eroded by the increasing prevalence of vapes; over the past three years, the rate of California residents reporting exposure to secondhand smoke and vape has continued to increase.*** It’s a stark reminder that even if you live somewhere that’s leading the way on smoke-free policies, you need to continue speaking up and seeking additional solutions. The best way to help build safer, healthier communities to live is to continually educate yourself and others.
*Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2014.
**Source: California Student Tobacco Survey, 2017-18. San Diego, CA: Center for Research and Intervention in Tobacco Control, University of California, San Diego; April 2019.
***Source: Online California Adult Tobacco Survey, 2016 to 2018. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Public Health; November 2018.
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