News and Events

Secondhand Smoke and Children
By Leslie Spurlock
May 24, 2018

In 1952, before the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking to cancer, Reader’s Digest published “Cancer by the Carton”, an article that resulted in the largest decrease in smoking since the great depression. Scientists continue to study the effects of smoking today. Not long ago secondhand smoke was not considered harmful. Now we know its effects contribute to 48,000+ deaths annually, the majority from coronary heart disease. Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report warned the public of the dangers of smoking, 2.5 million adults who were nonsmokers died because they breathed secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is the combination of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke breathed out by smokers. The Surgeon General’s 2006 Report, “The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Secondhand Smoke,” concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke and that, on average, children are exposed to more secondhand smoke than adults.

Children are significantly affected by secondhand smoke. Children’s bodies are still developing, and exposure to the poisons in secondhand smoke puts them at risk of severe respiratory diseases and can hinder the growth of their lungs. Secondhand smoke is a known cause of low birth weight, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, middle ear infections, and other diseases.*  Children exposed to a smoking adult get more fluid in their ears more often and have more operations to put in ear tubes for drainage. Children and youth are more vulnerable to involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke than adults.  

Although levels of secondhand smoke exposure declined between 1986-1984 and 1999-2004 in the general population overall, children were the sub-group with the least rate of decline.** In 2016, 53.9% of Florida youth (11-17) were exposed to secondhand electronic vaping aerosols or cigarette smoke. Unlike adults, children and youth do not have control over their environment when adults are smoking or vaping around them.

Young children are more often exposed to secondhand smoke at home or in a car. Cars even with a window open are small spaces where babies and children are closer to the smoker and smoke. An open window does not protect a child from exhaled smoke or secondhand smoke that lingers long after smoking has stopped and becomes thirdhand smoke. (More about that in another article!) Children in cars have no way to escape smoke or aerosol exhaled by the smoker or the smoke from a burning cigarette. After just half a cigarette has been smoked in a car, the quality of the air can reach levels 10 times over what the United States Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous.

Youth (11-17) are exposed to secondhand smoke or aerosol at home, in a car or in public. Although protected from secondhand smoke indoors, public exposure to secondhand smoke usually occurs on walkways and entrances to buildings, malls, restaurants, movie theaters, and public parks. Many establishments have not made it a policy to ban vaping where smoking is banned. This gauntlet of smoke and aerosol is not merely a nuisance, it is unhealthy to everyone, especially children.

What can you do to keep children healthy and safe? Because there is no safe level of secondhand smoke, the solution is to eliminate smoke completely from the environment. Ask local workplaces, recreation facilities, hotels, and restaurants with patios if they have a tobacco free policy. If they don’t, join your local Tobacco Free Partnership in advocating for change.

*US Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. US 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, 2006.

** Schober, S.E.; Zhang, C.; Brody, D.J.; Marano,C.; “Disparaties in secondhand smoke exposure – United States, 1988-1994 and 1999-2004, “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” 57 (27): 744-747, July 2008.