A new U.S. public health report concludes there is no safe level of environmental tobacco smoke. The nation's top public health physician, the Surgeon General, says inhaling someone else's tobacco smoke leads to an immediate chain of biological events that can lead to disease in a non-smoker and even death.
Last month, an Ontario, Canada woman named Heather Crowe, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. For years, she had worked long shifts as a waitress in smoke-filled restaurants. Before her death, she filmed this statement. "My doctor told me I had a smoker's tumor. I never smoked. The air was blue where I worked and I am dying from second-hand smoke," she said.
U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona showed that film to emphasize the key point in his new report on the dangers of environmental tobacco smoke. "There is no risk-free level of second-hand smoke exposure. Only smoke-free environments effectively protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke exposure in indoor spaces," he said.
Among the report's major points are these: Non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke increase their risk of developing heart disease and lung cancer by as much as 30 percent. Exposure is also a known cause of sudden infant death syndrome and childhood ailments such as breathing problems, ear infections, and asthma attacks.
Carmona says even brief exposure to environmental tobacco smoke can cause immediate harm to the circulatory system. "Science has shown now that within the first few minutes that you are exposed, there's an effect on clotting systems, there's an effect on blood vessels so that it's not going to kill you then, but what you are doing is accepting the fact that the cascade is going to start right then," he said.
Surgeon General Richard Carmona says second-hand smoke also leads to immediate cellular changes that can cause cancers.
The conclusions are not new. The mounting evidence has caused the World Health Organization to campaign against involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke for years. Its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which went into effect last year, commits the 131 signing nations, including the United States, to adopt measures against it.
In addition, The WHO and the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency have joined forces to support pilot projects protecting children from second hand smoke in China, Vietnam, Poland, and Latvia.
And the World Health Organization's western hemisphere branch, the Pan American Health Organization, launched a "Smoke-Free Americas" campaign five years ago to provide technical help to regional governments to reduce passive smoking exposure.
The U.S. Surgeon General's report is based on the same scientific findings that drive these efforts. Carmona says he issued it now to raise the awareness of U.S. citizens. Government figures show that the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped by half in the last 40 years to 21 percent, but 44 million continue to do so.
He makes an appeal to them. "Make your home a smoke-free environment and get help as quickly as you can," he said.