Secondhand Smoke Is Making Us and Our Children Sick

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Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study (pdf) describing nonsmokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke, the toxic vapors given off by a smoldering cigarette, pipe or cigar, or by a smoker exhaling smoke fumes.  

Even though blacks and whites smoke at approximately the same rate—and despite a two-decade-long public health campaign both to reduce smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke—researchers found that 45 percent of black Americans remain exposed to secondhand smoke, more than twice the rate of whites.

Shockingly, almost 70 percent of the 3.4 million African-American children between ages 3 and 11 are exposed to secondhand smoke, roughly twice the rate for white and Hispanic kids. And even though black middle and high school students are far less likely to smoke than their white counterparts, almost 55 percent of black adolescents (pdf) show evidence of nicotine exposure.


In an era in which the dangerous consequences of smoking are so well-known, and when so many people have successfully kicked the habit, the fact that so many black children and adults remain exposed to cigarette toxins is both an individual and public health disaster.

What’s going on, and what do we do about it?

What a Drag

Also referred to as passive smoking, involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke kills approximately 400 infants and 41,000 adults each year. In infants and children, secondhand smoke causes sudden infant death syndrome, respiratory infections, ear infections and asthma attacks—not to mention heart disease, stroke and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults. And although secondhand smoke doesn’t cause the following diseases, it is linked to them: lymphoma, leukemia and brain tumors in kids, as well as cancer of the bladder, brain, breast, rectum, sinuses, stomach, throat and voice box.

Researchers measure people’s exposure to nicotine by the presence of the chemical cotinine, a marker of nicotine exposure, in their bloodstream. For reasons that scientists don’t understand, cotinine lingers longer in the bloodstreams of black people.

“Genetically, non-Hispanic blacks metabolize cotinine  slower, so it goes through their body slower, and that might result in them having higher levels of cotinine for any given exposure compared to a non-Hispanic white person of the same age and body size,” says study co-author Brian A. King, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health and a lead author of the report.


Exposure to smoke is particularly dangerous for our children. Emerging science shows that toxins, including nicotine, have a devastating effect on how the brain of a fetus, infant or child develops, creating a lifetime of learning, behavior and health challenges—difficulties that we cannot comprehend, since we never get to see who the child could have become had he or she not been exposed.

Smoked Out

Because tobacco smoke is so dangerous, public health experts have long encouraged employers and policymakers to prohibit smoking in public spaces, workplaces, restaurants and bars. By 2014, 26 states, the District of Columbia (pdf) and approximately 700 local municipalities had enacted comprehensive smoke-free laws. Still, almost 90 million Americans above the age of 3 remain exposed to secondhand smoke.


African Americans, poor people, children and people who rent their home are more likely to encounter secondhand smoke in their environment.

“Black people are less likely to be covered by smoke-free policies in public and private settings,” says King. More than one-quarter of black Americans work at jobs where smoking is allowed, compared with 18 percent of whites.


Surprisingly, this higher exposure to tobacco smoke extends into our homes and cars. In black families with both children and smokers, only 33 percent of households prohibited smoking entirely, roughly half the rate of whites. Eleven percent of black people reported being exposed to smoke at home. Black folks are also less likely to own their homes, leaving us vulnerable to our neighbors’ smoke drifting into ours. We also tend to have fewer rules to keep smokers from lighting up in our vehicles.

Thank You for Not Smoking

What should you do to protect yourself and your child?

* Lay down the law: No smoking in your house. “People who don’t allow smoking anywhere in their homes can significantly reduce the extent of secondhand smoke exposure to themselves and their children,” says King.


* Also, tell people that they cannot smoke in your car, minivan or truck. “Several states have laws that prohibit smoking in vehicles while children are present,” King adds.

* Protect yourself and your children from smoke everywhere. Do not hesitate to politely ask people who light up near you to put their cigarette or smoke elsewhere.


* Work with your church, fraternity or sorority, community or civic organization, or parents or youth group to help get the word out that secondhand smoke exposure is not merely harmful but also deadly. “Efforts to educate people about dangers of SHS [secondhand smoke] and the importance of smoke-free environments, particularly in private settings like homes and vehicles, is really critical.”

* Ask your landlord to implement smoke-free rules to protect tenants’ health and longevity—not to mention the owner’s property.


* Contact your local representatives to encourage them to adopt comprehensive smoke-free laws, prohibiting smoking in all indoor areas of private workplaces, restaurants and bars—with no exceptions—to protect public health. Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, 20 lack such laws. These include Atlanta; Fresno, Calif.; Los Angeles; Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.; and Virginia Beach, Va., which lack state or local laws covering any of these venues altogether.

* Since the home is the primary place where children are exposed to secondhand smoke, encourage your legislators to prohibit smoking in all U.S. subsidized housing, including public housing.


Philadelphia-based writer Hilary Beard is co-author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, both of which have won an NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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