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New Study Finds Non-Smoking Workers Absorb Potent Carcinogen When Exposed to Secondhand Smoke, Shows Need for 100 Percent Smoke

Statement of Damon Moglen Vice President, International Programs, 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 around the world must enact comprehensive smoke-free laws that protect all workers and the public. The new study 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 living. Governments should protect everyone's right to breathe clean air by enacting comprehensive laws requiring that all workplaces and public places, including restaurants and bars, be smoke-free.

The study is a timely reminder of the need for effective action. The study 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 it is so important that governments 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 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.

The unacceptability of exposure to secondhand smoke is underscored by the growing number of countries that have implemented strong smoke-free laws. On July 1, England will become the latest country to do, joining the rest of the United Kingdom. Other countries that have adopted strong, nationwide smoke-free laws include Bermuda, Bhutan, France (effective 2008), Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Uruguay and Wales.

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.