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New Study Finds Non-Smoking Workers Absorb Potent Carcinogen When Exposed to Secondhand Smoke, Shows Need for Comprehensive Smoke-Free Laws

Statement of William V. Corr Executive Director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
June 28, 2007

Washington, DC — A new study being published in the August 2007 issue of the American Journal of Public Health provides powerful new evidence that secondhand smoke in the workplace is an unacceptable health hazard and underscores why governments in the United States and around the world must enact comprehensive smoke-free laws that protect all workers and the public. The new study, released today, finds that nonsmoking restaurant and bar employees absorb a potent, tobacco-specific carcinogen when exposed to secondhand smoke in the workplace. It also finds that levels of this powerful carcinogen continue to increase the longer the employee works in a place where smoking is permitted.

The more we learn about the dangers of secondhand smoke, the more unacceptable it becomes for anyone to be exposed to this life-threatening health hazard in order to earn a paycheck or to enjoy a night out. Governments should protect everyone's right to breathe clean air.

The study is a timely reminder of the need for effective action. It comes as the world’s nations are preparing to meet in Bangkok, Thailand, at a June 30-July 6 conference on implementation of the international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. A key issue on the agenda is the adoption of standards to implement the treaty provision calling for protection from secondhand smoke. The new study shows why governments should adopt the proposed global standard that only “100 percent smoke-free” workplaces and public places provide effective protection from secondhand smoke. The proposed standard also finds that “there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke” and “all people should be protected from exposure to tobacco smoke.” Anything short of 100 percent smoke-free policies will condemn millions of workers around the world to continued exposure to the deadly carcinogens in secondhand smoke.

In the U.S., 22 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have now passed smoke-free laws that cover restaurants and bars. The states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois (pending governor’s expected signature), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

Countries that have adopted nationwide smoke-free laws include Bermuda, Bhutan, England (effective July 1, 2007), France (effective 2008), Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Uruguay and Wales.

On the basis of this new study and the ever-growing evidence of the many health harms from secondhand smoke, we urge governments to enact smoke-free laws that include ALL workplaces and protect ALL workers and the public. It is unacceptable, for example, that the Pennsylvania Senate voted this week to create loopholes and exemptions for a number of workplaces, including bars and casinos. Elected leaders should protect ALL workers from secondhand smoke rather than choosing which to protect and which to condemn to continued exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in the workplace.

The new study, conducted in Oregon by the Multnomah County Health Department and Oregon Department of Human Services, involved 52 nonsmoking employees from restaurants and bars in communities where smoking was still permitted in such establishments and 32 nonsmoking bar and restaurant employees where smoking is prohibited by local ordinance. It found that employees who worked in establishments where smoking was permitted were significantly more likely to have detectable levels of the carcinogen NNK, which is known to cause lung cancer and is found in the body only as a result of using tobacco or breathing secondhand smoke. Elevated levels of NNK showed up in the urine of nonsmoking employees shortly after they encountered secondhand smoke during their shifts and levels of NNK increased by six percent for each hour of work. According to the researchers, this is the first study to show increases in NNK as a result of brief workplace exposure. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Substance Abuse Policy Research Program.

Secondhand smoke contains more than 4000 chemicals, including at least 69 known to cause cancer. The U.S. Surgeon General and other health authorities have concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer, heart disease and serious respiratory illnesses among adults and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), low birth weight, respiratory infections, ear infections and asthma attacks in infants and children.