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News Briefs: Damning Evidence Against Secondhand Smoke

Damning Evidence Against Secondhand Smoke

Next time you think that sitting in a restaurant's nonsmoking section is a healthy choice, think again.

"There is no level of exposure to secondhand smoke that is safe. Period," says Jonathan Samet, professor and chair of Epidemiology and senior scientific editor of the Surgeon General's 2006 report on the devastating health consequences of secondhand smoke exposure.

The report—released on June 27—is a clarion call to the public and policy-makers alike to eliminate smoking from indoor environments.

"Moving air in and out of buildings doesn't work, and neither do air filters; if someone is smoking somewhere in a building, other people in that building are likely being involuntarily exposed," Samet warns. "People generally understand that smoking is bad for your health, but the dangers of secondhand smoke are less universally recognized. As a result, many millions of Americans are still being exposed to it in their homes and at work, with very serious health consequences."

The report notes that exposure to secondhand smoke adversely affects a person's cardiovascular system almost immediately, and in the long run can lead to lung cancer and heart disease. Children exposed to it not only suffer from ear problems, more severe asthma and more acute respiratory infections, but also are at increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

"People generally understand that smoking is bad for your health, but the dangers of secondhand smoke are less universally recognized. As a result, many millions of Americans are still being exposed to it—with very serious health consequences."—Jonathan Samet

The evidence, gathered and analyzed by Samet, MD, MS, and his colleagues (many from the School), includes epidemiological data from noted researchers throughout the world, as well as hundreds of background studies on the toxicity of secondhand smoke.

"My hope is that more cities and states will understand the importance of what this report reveals and will take action to provide people with smoke-free environments," he says. "I am hopeful that legislators and the public will learn that you just can't have smokers and nonsmokers in the same place and protect the nonsmokers."

Some of Samet's research into the dangers of secondhand smoke is carried out under the auspices of the Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute (FAMRI) and the Johns Hopkins FAMRI Center of Excellence, which was created last year to support investigators funded by FAMRI. (FAMRI was set up as a result of a 1991 lawsuit filed against the tobacco industry on behalf of flight attendants who became sick or died from exposure to secondhand smoke. The suit's settlement included $300 million for a nonprofit medical foundation.)

"Flight attendants were among the first to draw attention to the concerns created by secondhand smoke, which is how FAMRI eventually came to be," says Samet, who in 2003 received a Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor award of $600,000 from FAMRI for his tobacco research. "They knew they were being made sick by breathing tobacco smoke in the cabins, and became quite vocal... Now, more and more people are concerned about breathing tobacco smoke involuntarily and becoming ill. As a result, it's snowballing."

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