New CDC Report Shows Big Drop in Secondhand Smoke Exposure Among Americans, But 58 Million Still Exposed – Every State and Community Should be Smoke-Free

Statement of Susan M. Liss, Executive Director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
February 03, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC – The percentage of Americans exposed to secondhand smoke has fallen by more than half since 1999, but one in four non-smokers – 58 million people altogether – was still exposed in 2011-2012, according to a new report issued today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is especially troubling that children have the highest levels of exposure, with 40.6 percent of children aged 3-11 and 67.9 percent of African-American children in that age group still exposed to secondhand smoke. While the sharp decline in exposure to secondhand smoke is great news, it is unacceptable that 58 million Americans, including so many children, are still exposed to this serious and entirely preventable health threat.

The CDC report demonstrates both the effectiveness of and continuing need for comprehensive smoke-free laws that apply to all workplaces and public places, including restaurants and bars. To date, 24 states, Washington, DC, and hundreds of cities have enacted such laws, protecting about half the U.S. population (an additional six states have laws that apply to all restaurants and bars, but not all other workplaces). It’s time for every state and community to go smoke-free and protect everyone’s right to breathe clean air, free from the serious health hazards of secondhand smoke.

States in the South have lagged behind in providing this important public health protection, which is easy and cost-effective to implement and very popular with the public. New Orleans set a terrific example for southern states and cities last month when it enacted a comprehensive smoke-free ordinance. The Kentucky Legislature should quickly follow suit and finally approve comprehensive, statewide smoke-free legislation that has been under consideration for several years.

The high level of child exposure to secondhand smoke also underscores the need for parents to take additional steps to protect children, such as ensuring that homes, cars and other places frequented by children are smoke-free. It is encouraging that the proportion of U.S. households with voluntary smoke-free rules has increased from 43 percent to 83 percent in the last two decades. For parents who smoke, the best step to protect children is to quit smoking.

Overall, the CDC reported that the percentage of non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke fell from 52.5 percent during 1999-2000 to 25.3 percent during 2011-2012. Exposure was higher among children, African Americans, those living in poverty and those who live in rental housing. Secondhand smoke exposure was determined based on blood levels of cotinine, a nicotine byproduct.

“Continued efforts to promote implementation of comprehensive statewide laws prohibiting smoking in workplaces and public places, smoke-free policies in multiunit housing, and voluntary smoke-free home and vehicle rules are critical to protect nonsmokers from this preventable health hazard in the places they live, work, and gather,” the CDC concludes. The report provides support for growing efforts to make public and subsidized housing smoke-free, with the report noting, “The potential for SHS [secondhand smoke] exposure in subsidized housing is particularly concerning because a large proportion of these units are occupied by persons who are especially sensitive to the effects of SHS, including children, the elderly and the disabled.”

Secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and at least 69 that cause cancer. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, secondhand smoke causes lung cancer, heart disease and stroke in non-smoking adults and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), low birth weight, respiratory problems, ear infections and more severe asthma in infants and children.

The Surgeon General also found that secondhand smoke is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in the United States each year, there is no safe level of exposure, and only smoke-free laws provide effective protection. The evidence is also clear that smoke-free laws protect health without harming business.

The CDC’s report was published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.