Despite Progress, Teens Still Exposed to Secondhand Smoke in Cars

February 07, 2012

The percentage of teens exposed to secondhand smoke in cars has declined significantly, yet more than a fifth of non-smoking middle and high school students are exposed to smoke in vehicles, putting them at risk of disease including acute respiratory and ear infections, delayed lung growth and more severe asthma attacks.

Image of kids in a car with a person smoking a cigarette

From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of nonsmoking youth exposed to secondhand smoke in cars dropped from 39 percent to 22.8 percent, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.  Researchers attribute the change to declines in smoking and the spread of laws requiring smoke-free workplaces and public places, which has raised awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke and caused some smokers to curtail smoking in their homes and cars.

Four states – Arkansas, California, Louisiana and Maine – as well as Puerto Rico prohibit smoking inside vehicles when children are present. 

Secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and at least 69 that cause cancer.  It kills about 50,000 people in the U.S. and more than 600,000 worldwide every year.

A 2006 Harvard School of Public Health study on smoking in cars with kids found “alarming” levels of secondhand smoke were generated in just five minutes. The researchers found that the air pollution levels detected “highlight the potentially serious threat to children’s health presented by secondhand smoke in private cars under normal driving conditions.”

States should enact comprehensive smoke-free laws that apply to all workplaces, including restaurants and bars, to protect everyone’s right to breathe clean air and to continue influencing public attitudes about secondhand smoke.  The new study also supports the adoption of voluntary and legislative policies prohibiting smoking in cars with kids.