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Dangers of Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke affects virtually everyone – whether at home, at work, at school, in restaurants, in theaters or in bars. Secondhand smoke is a proven health threat to the young and old.

What is secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke is the smoke that individuals breathe when located in the same airspace as smokers. It is a complex combination of more than 4,000 chemicals. It includes irritants and systemic poisons such as hydrogen cyanide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and formaldehyde. It also contains more than 50 chemicals that can cause cancer, including arsenic, chromium, vinyl chloride and benzene. Many of the chemicals, such as nicotine, cadmium and carbon monoxide, damage reproductive processes. Secondhand smoke is a major indoor air pollutant. It has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a “Class A” or human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) for which there is no safe level of exposure.

How does secondhand smoke affect my health?

Nonsmokers who breathe secondhand smoke suffer many of the same diseases as regular smokers. Heart disease deaths, as well as lung and nasal sinus cancers, have been linked with secondhand smoke exposure. Exposure of nonsmoking women to secondhand smoke during pregnancy reduces fetal growth. Exposure of infants to secondhand smoke greatly increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Tobacco smoke also causes immediate effects including eye and nasal irritation, headache, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, cough and respiratory problems.

What effect does secondhand smoke have on children?

Secondhand smoke causes a wide variety of adverse health effects in children, including bronchitis and pneumonia, development and worsening of asthma and middle-ear infections. Being exposed to secondhand smoke slows the growth of children’s lungs and can cause them to cough, wheeze and feel breathless.

Because they are smaller and breathe faster than adults, they breathe in more harmful chemicals per pound of weight than an adult would in the same amount of time.

Finally, children have less choice than adults. Infants and children cannot ask to leave a smoke-filled room if they want to.

Studies of the health effects of secondhand smoke on children found that exposure to tobacco smoke –

  • Causes an increase in bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.
  • Triggers asthma attacks in children who already have asthma. (Some researchers have concluded that it actually induces asthma in healthy children.)
  • Causes both acute and chronic middle-ear infections. (A report by the Surgeon General in 2006 stated that children exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk for ear infections and are more likely to need an operation to insert ear tubes for drainage.)

What is the best way to eliminate secondhand smoke?

At home – The best place to begin the fight against secondhand smoke is in your home. Make your home smoke-free. Let your loved ones and visitors know you care about their health and your own. Place signs reminding guests they are in a smoke-free area.

At work and in the community – As of January 1, 2008, the Smoke-free Illinois Act requires that public places and places of employment must be completely smoke-free inside and within 15 feet from entrances, exits, windows that open and ventilation intakes. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Public places and buildings, offices, elevators, restrooms, theaters, museums, libraries, educational institutions, schools, commercial establishments, enclosed shopping centers and retail stores
  • Restaurants, bars, taverns and gaming facilities
  • Lobbies, reception areas, hallways, meeting rooms, waiting rooms, break rooms and other common-use areas
  • Concert halls, auditoriums, enclosed or partially enclosed sports arenas, bowling alleys, skating rinks, convention facilities, polling places and private clubs
  • Hospitals, health care facilities, health care clinics, child care, adult care or other similar social service care
  • No less than 75 percent of hotel or motel sleeping quarters rented to guests
  • Public conveyances, government-owned vehicles and vehicles open to the public

Complaints can be filed with the Illinois Department of Public Health on the Web at or by telephoning the Department’s toll-free Complaint Line at 866-973-4646. Complaints also can be made to a state-certified local health department or local law enforcement.

For more information, visit or telephone the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Office of Health Promotion at


Don’t believe …

The glamorous photos of celebrities puffing away on a cigar.

The myth that “if you don’t inhale,” you don’t need to worry about your health.

The fairy tale that cigars are a safe alternative to cigarettes.

The truth is that cigars greatly increase the risk of lung and oral cancers; and they deliver a large, addictive dose of nicotine. And don’t ever forget it.

Anatomy of a cigar

Cigars are defined as any roll of tobacco wrapped in leaf tobacco, or other substance containing tobacco. That’s right … tobacco wrapped in tobacco. By comparison, a cigarette is any roll of tobacco wrapped in paper or other substance not containing tobacco. Cigars come in different sizes and can vary in the amount of time it takes to smoke one. While cigarettes are generally uniform in size and contain less than 1 gram of tobacco each, one cigar contains between 5 and 17 grams of tobacco. It’s not unusual for some cigar brands to have as much tobacco in one cigar as an entire pack of cigarettes.

The debate about “inhaling”

Have you heard that cigar smoking is less dangerous than cigarettes? Don’t believe it. Many people think cigars are safer because many cigar smokers don’t inhale. However, all cigar and cigarette smokers, whether they inhale or not, directly expose their lips, mouth, tongue, throat and larynx to smoke and its cancer-causing agents (carcinogens). Holding an unlit cigar between the lips also exposes these areas to carcinogens. As you know, cigars contain tobacco on the outside too. So you don’t have to inhale to experience the harmful and deadly effects of smoking.

Your health

Scientific evidence has shown that cancer of the oral cavity, larynx, lungs and esophagus are associated with cigar smoking. The evidence also strongly suggests a link between cigar smoking and cancer of the pancreas and bladder. Daily cigar smokers, particularly those who inhale, are at increased risk for developing heart and lung disease.

What about secondhand cigar smoke?

Because cigars have more tobacco than cigarettes, and they often burn for much longer, cigars give off greater amounts of secondhand smoke. In general, secondhand smoke from cigars contains many of the same poisons (toxins) and carcinogens as cigarettes but in higher concentration. Here are a few of these chemicals.

carbon monoxide
volatile aldehydes

aromatic amines
vinyl chloride

Are cigars addictive?

By now you know that cigars and cigarettes have much in common. Addiction is no different. Nicotine is the substance in tobacco that causes addiction. One cigar has as much nicotine as several cigarettes. When a cigar smoker inhales, nicotine is absorbed as rapidly as it is with cigarettes. For those who do not inhale, it is absorbed more slowly through the tissues of the mouth. People who use chewing tobacco absorb nicotine the same way. Both inhaled and noninhaled nicotine are highly addictive.


More information about secondhand smoke can be obtained by contacting the following organizations:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

Illinois Department of Public Health

Illinois Tobacco Quitline
You can quit. We can help.

American Lung Association

American Cancer Society

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

National Cancer Institute