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Tobacco Smoke

Smoking is estimated to be the single largest cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Tobacco can pose risks to your health even if you are not the one doing the smoking.  The following information will teach you about the dangers of smoking.

Environmental tobacco smoke or ETS (also called “secondhand smoke”), refers to the smoke that is released in the air when a smoker exhales, combined with the smoke released from a burning cigarette, cigar or pipe. In 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report that outlined the dangers of ETS or "passive smoking." It found that ETS causes about 3,000 deaths from lung cancer each year in the United States. It also stated that passive smoking is an important cause of respiratory illness.

Children who live with a smoker are especially at risk for health problems. Their growing lungs are at increased risk for illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, tracheitis (inflammation of the upper airway) and asthma. And infants exposed to ETS are more likely to develop otitis media (middle ear infection).

What's in Tobacco Smoke?

Secondhand smoke contains up to 4,000 chemicals, including trace amounts of poisons like formaldehyde, arsenic, DDT and cyanide. More than 40 of the substances in ETS are known to cause cancer. Many more cause irritation of the lungs and airways. Secondhand smoke has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Group A carcinogen (cancer causing agent). Group A carcinogens are the most harmful.

How is ETS Linked to Allergies and Asthma in Children?

Children are especially at risk of lung damage and illness from inhaled smoke. Studies have shown a clear link between ETS and asthma in young people. Passive smoking worsens asthma in teens and may cause up to 26,000 new cases of asthma each year. It is also linked to hundreds of thousands of infections of the lower respiratory tract (the lungs and lower airways) in infants under 18 months. These infections in turn lead to thousands of hospitalizations of children each year. The incidence of sudden infant death syndrome quadruples if the mother or both parents are smokers.

Children exposed to ETS are more likely to have reduced lung function and symptoms of respiratory irritation, such as coughing, wheezing and excess phlegm (fluid in the lungs and airways). Children with allergies and nasal congestion who are also exposed to tobacco smoke are up to six times more likely than others to have persistent middle ear infections requiring the surgical insertion of tubes.

Smoke and Minors

Exposure to ETS is responsible for increased frequency of asthma episodes in adolescents. There is also evidence which suggests that adolescents exposed to ETS may have decreased pulmonary function tests, higher cholesterol levels and may increase their risks of heart disease as adults.

Surveys show a disturbing trend of smoking among young people. The most recent data shows that more than a third of high school students (grades 9-12) report that they currently smoke. The rate is highest among high school seniors. In addition, about one-tenth of high school students report that they use smokeless (chewing) tobacco.

Tobacco advertising that seems to be aimed at young people is troubling. Many communities and local governments are increasing their efforts to control such marketing practices and the topic has received a good deal of attention in the media in recent years. In some states, parental smoking is an important issue in deciding questions of custody in divorce cases.

How to Reduce Secondhand Smoke Exposure?

As a parent, you can limit your children's exposure to secondhand smoke. The first and most important steps begin at home, by quitting smoking yourself, if you are a smoker. You can also set down a policy of having a smoke-free home by asking guests not to light up in your house.  Wherever possible, protect your kids from second-hand smoke.

Quitting is seldom easy, but it is possible. Smoking-cessation programs, counseling and methods such as nicotine gum or patches have helped many people give up tobacco for good. Your doctor should be able to steer you toward to help you on the road to kicking the habit and addiction. Until you quit, do not smoke within the airspace of your child, not in your home or in your car.

Choose childcare carefully so that your children will not suffer from the harmful effects of ETS.  Remember: Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk of illness. Protecting them from exposure is good preventive medicine. Your child's health depends on it.

Getting Help to Quit Smoking

Free online resources like www.BecomeAnEX.org can increase your chances of quitting and staying quit.  (The EXPLan is a quit-smoking program that helps you re-learn your life without cigarettes.  EX comprehensively addresses the physical, behavioral and social aspects of smoking.  This site also includes a large virtual community, where smokers who are trying to quit can connect with others to share support and encouragement.)


SOURCE: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. First created 1995; fully updated 1998; most recently updated 2012.
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)
Editorial Board
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
www.aafa.org 1-800-7-ASTHMA