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Smoking bans linked to dramatic drop in secondhand smoke exposure

Americans’ exposure to secondhand smoke has dropped dramatically — by 50 percent — over the past decade, thanks primarily to state laws prohibiting smoking at work sites and other public places and to individuals smoking less in their homes, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 1999, one in two nonsmokers were exposed to secondhand smoke, but by 2012, only one in four were exposed, the CDC analysis found. Exposure was assessed by testing for cotinine, a marker of nicotine, in blood samples taken voluntarily from people participating annually in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

“It is good news,” said Robert Moffitt, spokesperson for the American Lung Association in Minnesota, in a phone interview Wednesday. “It really shows the progress that we’ve made in a relatively short time.”

No exposure is safe

Of course, as Moffitt and the CDC researchers point out, no amount of secondhand smoke exposure — which occurs when nonsmokers breathe in smoke exhaled by smokers or from burning tobacco products — is considered safe. Secondhand smoke has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), asthma attacks and respiratory and ear infections in infants and children, as well as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer in adults.

Studies suggest that secondhand smoke is responsible for 400 deaths among infants and 41,000 deaths among nonsmoking adults in the United States each year.

And although the share of Americans breathing in the toxic fumes of secondhand smoke may have fallen by half in recent years, the one-in-four statistic still means that 58 million Americans are being regularly exposed to it.

Groups most at risk

Some groups remain at higher risk of secondhand smoke exposure than others, the CDC report found. During 2012, the highest exposure rates were among children aged 3 to 11 (40 percent), African-Americans (47 percent), people living below the poverty level (43 percent) and people living in rental housing (37 percent).

The higher rate among African-Americans may be in part from their increased risk of workplace exposure to secondhand smoke, the CDC study notes. About 26 percent of black nonsmokers in the study worked in environments where smoking was permitted, compared to 18 percent of white nonsmokers.

Black children aged 3 to 11 had particularly high levels of exposure to secondhand smoke: 67 percent. Among white children, the exposure rate was 37 percent, and among Hispanic children, it was 30 percent.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As the CDC researchers point out, the home is the primary source of secondhand smoke exposure for children. Although many people have declared their homes smoke-free, many others haven’t. In addition, about 80 million (one in four) Americans live in multi-unit housing where they — and their children — can be exposed to unwanted smoke that seeps in from neighboring units or that exists in common areas.

“When seven out of 10 African-American children and two out of five children overall are exposed to secondhand smoke, that shows we have a lot of work yet to do,” said Moffitt.

Several explanations

The CDC cites several possible reasons for the U.S.’s dramatic decline in secondhand smoke exposure. At the top of the list are the 700 or so towns and cities that have implemented smoke-free laws over the past 25 years and the 26 states and the District of Columbia that have banned smoking in public places since 2002.

“Almost half (49.3%) of U.S. residents are currently covered by comprehensive smoke-free laws at the state or local level,” the report points out.

Other reasons for the decline in secondhand smoke exposure include the increasing number of families voluntarily creating a smoke-free environment in their homes (more than 83 percent of all U.S. households at last count), the fall in the social acceptability of smoking (particularly around nonsmokers), and the fact that fewer Americans are now smoking cigarettes.

‘Time to finish the job’

Minnesota has been a national leader in efforts to reduce people’s exposure to secondhand smoke and the health risks that come with it. For example, Minnesota was the first state in the nation to establish non-smoking areas in restaurants — back in the 1970s, said Moffitt.

And in 2007, the state passed the “Freedom to Breathe” legislation, which banned smoking in most workplaces and other public indoor spaces.

The CDC report is evidence that such laws work, said Moffitt.

“It is an amazing move forward, and it shows we’re halfway there,” he said. “Now it’s time to finish the job and make sure that everyone has a safe workplace and a safe home.”

The CDC report was published Tuesday in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, where you can read it in full. For information on how you can protect the air in your home, whether you rent or own, go to the American Lung Association website.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 02/05/2015 - 09:05 am.

    “Time to finish the job”

    Does that mean that the next step will be to ban smoking in private residences?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/05/2015 - 09:50 am.


      More likely public spaces, because as you know, short of criminalizing tobacco itself, such a ban as you suggest would be unenforceable.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 02/05/2015 - 02:59 pm.

        Before the ban,

        I remember coming home from First Avenue and having to strip off my clothes and throw them outside on the deck because they reeked so bad.
        It really hits home when you visit a state that doesn’t have a smoking ban and walk into a bar or restaurant….yuck.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/05/2015 - 07:40 pm.


          Even when I did smoke, I could never understand the outrage certain other smokers felt at being made to practice simple common courtesy. I expect a ban similar to the one regarding public consumption of alcohol will probably be the next phase.

          • Submitted by jason myron on 02/06/2015 - 06:34 am.

            Don’t get me wrong, Matt…

            I’m not out to demonize smokers. I was just pointing out how much a non smoker notices the difference. Frankly, I was indifferent of the ban at the time…I was in clubs a lot and coming from Wisconsin, was just used to it. Also, I always had a bit of a problem with the hypocrisy of making it more difficult and costly to smoke , while eagerly lapping up the taxes from it. It’s a legal product.

            • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/06/2015 - 09:37 am.

              No demonizing here

              Just befuddlement, I could recognize that my decision to smoke shouldn’t be forced on others, yet I’ve seen much commentary to the effect of “if you don’t like it, leave” over the years. I never could understand how smokers thought they would win that argument. Personally, I think the alcohol analogy works as far as regulation is concerned, outside of enclosed work environments, obviously, do it on your own property, and in whatever private venue it’s legally allowed, everywhere else is out.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/05/2015 - 10:36 am.

      The next step

      Clearly, we need to get some good, comprehensive smoke free laws in the states that don’t have them yet. Many multi-unit housing units are deciding on their own to go smoke free. That’s a trend we expect to continue.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/06/2015 - 07:54 am.

      Try to get a bit more nuanced

      I’ve lived in a rental where enough smoke was coming through the walls/vents/whatever that I had to buy multiple air cleaners to try and minimize the stench. You might say that the answer is to just find another place to live, but that’s a bit simplistic. Especially if a smoker were to later move in to the unit on the “other side of the wall” of the new place you just move into to get away from the smoker in the old place.

      I’d like to see some sort of protection for renters who don’t wish to be exposed to other renters’ secondhand smoke. I’m not sure what form that would take which would not infringe upon the privacy within one’s own home. But I think it’s worth working on.

      Of course, landlords are already free to make other exclusions (pets, for example). Perhaps there could be some sort of regulation that requires multi-unit housing to have sections that are smoke-free, with effective separation between smoking sections and smoke-free sections that ensure secondhand smoke cannot enter smoke-free sections. (And without the wimpy “separation” requirements that existed when Minnesota’s Clean Indoor Air Act was first enacted.)

      It’s a more complicated problem to address, but I think it’s worth looking into.

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 02/06/2015 - 02:07 pm.

        How about we ban all apartment smoking?

        We’ve had the same problem. It only seems fair that all the burden and expense of keeping smoke away from non-smokers should be up to the smoker, not other non-smoking tenants, and not the landlord. I’d personally like to see a ban on any smoking in apartments in Minneapolis.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/06/2015 - 04:29 pm.

          Privacy in the home

          Much as I hate being subjected to smoke from others, I also have a healthy respect for not infringing upon the privacy of what goes on in the home. Insofar as those private actions do not have a deleterious effect on others, of course.

          But perhaps you have an idea for another approach. That if a tenant complains that their air quality is being negatively impacted by another tenant smoking, then the smoking tenant will become legally obligated to find a way to keep their smoke contained (or not smoke inside their own home).

          Of course, there is then the problem of peer pressure in that many non-smokers may not wish to cause trouble by complaining. Which means that this approach puts a different kind of burden upon them, and that is not fair, either, when they are not the ones causing the problem.

          I’m still kind of thinking that an upfront designation that physically segregated (in terms of air quality) sections of multi-unit housing be declared either “smoke-free” or not, and that there have to be enough smoke-free units to accommodate those who want them (perhaps reflecting the overall percentage of the population at large who are smokers?)

  2. Submitted by Kenneth Johnson on 02/05/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    Getting with the times

    It’s great to look back to asses and find positive results from regulations protecting public health; but times have changed and we now must consider safeguards against e-cigarettes and their noxious exhaust. Sadly, the state legislature is not tuned into the negative health effects of e-smokes to non users, and e-cig usage regulations are being implanted at the municipal level. Because e-smokes emit nicotine and other noxious substances, including formaldehyde, their use should be regulated on a state and federal level so that people can expect the same level of safeguards as are in place for tobacco cigarettes.

  3. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 02/05/2015 - 08:57 pm.

    I hate smokers

    When I was a kid smoke made me have asthma symptoms. I was a very athletic kid but would sometimes have to sit motionless in a chair because of adults smoking around me. When I begged my Mom (a nurse) not to smoke in the car she ignored me. When I opened the window I was yelled at. When neighbors drove us places I was actually hit for cracking the window. Since being an adult I have spent hundreds of dollars dry cleaning clothes to get the smoke stench out of them. When bartending after college we all had to take showers when we got home (sometimes twice) to get the stench of the smokers out of our hair. I want to be very clear that I don’t want smokers to stop in fact I want them to smoke as much as humanly possible and die – just keep your stench away from non-smokers.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/06/2015 - 07:30 am.

      That’s a little harsh

      “I want them to smoke as much as humanly possible and die.” Really? That’s as bad as Republicans at election events wishing the uninsured would just get sick and die. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised the moderators allowed this.

      I hate being around smokers, too, and support legislation that protects me from being exposed to secondhand smoke in public spaces. But wishing all smokers would die? I’m sorry, but that’s a bridge too far.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/06/2015 - 01:22 pm.

      You’re way out of line, Steven…

      Smokers are people too. They’re are friends, neighbors and coworkers… so, let’s keep things in perspective here. Wishing death on anyone is bad juju…

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/09/2015 - 09:15 am.


      Smoking is a highly addicting behavior that was tolerated, if not encouraged, for many years. “Hating” smokers–and hoping that they die–seems more than a little harsh.

      PS I have lost at least three much-loved family members to tobacco-related conditions. I would not wish their deaths on anyone.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/09/2015 - 12:01 pm.

      Harsh Indeed

      You’re ignoring the fact that it’s also highly addictive. Really though, we should try not not wish death upon those we find objectionable for whatever reason.

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