Mission Possible: Protect Yourself From Secondhand SmokePosted on by
Wouldn’t it be great if all American employees enjoyed a smokefree workplace? I often think about this as director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. At CDC—a tobacco free campus—I have the privilege of leading an office committed to teaching people about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke. From a more personal perspective, as a mother, I feel the responsibility to protect my kids and all kids from exposure to secondhand smoke. Everyone deserves the right to breathe clean air.
Secondhand smoke exposure occurs when nonsmokers breathe in smoke blown by smokers or from burning tobacco products. Secondhand smoke contains deadly chemicals that cause heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults. It kills more than 400 infants and 41,000 adult nonsmokers every year. The Surgeon General has concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Yet, one in five employed U.S. adult nonsmokers are exposed to secondhand smoke at work. Exposure is even higher among several racial and ethnic groups, including American Indians/Alaska Natives.
One of the ways we’re teaching people about how harmful secondhand smoke exposure can be is through the Tips from Former Smokers® campaign. Even before I became Director, I had seen the compelling ads on television. The campaign features real people with serious long-term health effects from smoking and secondhand smoke exposure. The story of Nathan, a Tips campaign participant and member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, stands out as an example of how secondhand smoke can be harmful. Nathan worked for 11 years in casinos that allowed smoking, but he never smoked cigarettes himself. Instead, he just breathed in cigarette smoke every day. According to one of his doctors, his lungs looked like those of a heavy smoker.
Too many people like Nathan suffer because of cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke, especially minorities and people of color. Native Americans have the highest rates of cigarette smoking, and African Americans are exposed to secondhand smoke more than other racial and ethnic groups. Moreover, people with lower income and lower education are less likely to be covered by smokefree laws in worksites, restaurants, and bars.
The level of secondhand smoke people have been exposed to can be measured by testing for a chemical called cotinine in their bodies. Using this kind of measurement, a CDC report published in 2015 found that two out of every five children in the United States aged 3-11 years were exposed to secondhand smoke regularly. This included seven out of every 10 African American children. The study also showed that nearly half of African American nonsmokers and nearly a quarter of Mexican American nonsmokers in the United States are exposed to secondhand smoke.
I’m proud of the work that my team in the Office on Smoking and Health does to combat exposure to secondhand smoke, especially for people like Nathan and other minorities who are disproportionately affected. Tips is the first ever national tobacco education campaign. Now in its seventh year, the campaign continues to encourage smokers not to smoke around others and nonsmokers to protect themselves and their families from exposure to secondhand smoke. This year, in addition to the national media buy, we are reaching minority audiences in the following ways:
- American Indians and Alaska Natives—placing national and regional radio and print ads, targeted digital media ads, as well as ads on TV screens in clinics that serve Native American populations
- African Americans—running TV ads on Black Entertainment Television (BET), in online properties such as BET and BlackDoctor.org, and in Essencemagazine
- Spanish speakers—Placing in-language TV ads on Telemundo and Univision and on digital properties, as well as continuing a successful initiative called Linea de Ayuda, in which 90-second informational segments are aired during commercial breaks in large Hispanic programming markets
- Asian populations (Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Korean)—running in-language print and digital ads in markets with high Asian populations
- LGBT communities—running TV and print ads in LGBT outlets such as VIACOM’s LGBT property LOGO; on websites and social media outlets, Gay.com and AskEllen; and in the national LGBT magazines, Out and Advocate
Nathan became a true champion of smoke-free environments, emphasizing that “when you smoke, it affects more than just your health.” In addition to his participation in the Tips campaign, he spoke at schools, Pow-Wows, and conferences as much as his health allowed. He urged teens not to start smoking, and if they did, to quit. He encouraged everyone to protect children from secondhand smoke. Nathan’s picture hangs on the wall in our office, so every day at work I am reminded of what we can do to end smoking-related health disparities, including reducing exposure to secondhand smoke.
Most exposure to secondhand smoke occurs in homes and workplaces. But we can all make small changes that make big differences in the lives of people around us—by not allowing anyone to smoke in our homes or cars, making sure our children’s day care centers and schools are tobacco-free, and seeking out restaurants and other places that do not allow smoking. Employers can establish smoke-free policies on their properties. Employers can also provide all employees and their dependents with health insurance that covers support for quitting.
The secondhand smoke Nathan was exposed to in his workplace triggered asthma attacks, eye irritation, headaches, sinus infections, and bronchitis and eventually caused permanent lung damage that led to his death in October 2013. He was only 54 years old. It makes me sad to think that there was so much we could have done as a nation to prevent Nathan’s death. Fortunately we can continue to honor his life and his legacy in a positive way—as Nathan himself said, “let future generations know the dangers of secondhand smoke.”
If you would like additional free resources to help your workplace go tobacco free, visit https://www.cdcfoundation.org/businesspulse/tobacco-use.
If you or someone you know wants free help to quit smoking, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or 1-855-DÉJELO-YA (1-855-335-3569) (for Spanish speakers).
Special thanks to Dr. Graffunder for contributing this blog in recognition of World No Tobacco Day on May 31 and as part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary commemoration of CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. Our theme for the 30th anniversary commemoration is Mission: Possible. We believe “healthy lives for everyone” is possible and a goal that resonates in public health.