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Death by association: The threat of secondhand smoke

ash trayIf you live, work or socialize with a tobacco smoker, you may be jeopardizing your health. Each year, regular exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), also called secondhand smoke, causes approximately 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 23,000 to 69,000 heart disease deaths among nonsmoking American adults, according to the American Lung Association.

Your own risk
Just how dangerous is secondhand smoke to you personally? Even having lived with someone who smokes raises a nonsmoking woman’s risk of pulmonary adenocarcinoma (the most common type of lung cancer in nonsmokers) by at least 50 percent, according to a study done by researchers at Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans and four other medical institutions. The study also concluded that exposure to secondhand smoke in social situations or in the workplace can raise a nonsmoker’s risk of adenocarcinoma of the lungs by 40 percent to 60 percent. Other scientific studies show that secondhand smoke increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, nonsmokers exposed to ETS are 25 percent more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than those not exposed to secondhand smoke, says the American Lung Association.
Burning cigarettes emit two types of smoke—mainstream smoke, which is inhaled directly into the smoker’s lungs, and sidestream smoke, which is released from the tip between puffs. ETS, which contains at least 40 cancer-causing chemicals, is composed of about 85 percent sidestream smoke and 15 percent exhaled mainstream smoke.

Ways to cut your risk
Since there is no “safe” level of exposure to ETS, your best line of defense is to avoid it whenever you’re able.

  • If you live with a smoker, share this article and encourage the smoker to quit. If he refuses, or isn’t successful, ask him to smoke outside or in a particular room.
  • Adopt a no-smoking policy in your home. Let guests know in advance what your rules are, so smokers can either decline the invitation or prepare for a smokeless visit.
  • If your workplace isn’t smoke-free, get together with other nonsmoking employees and talk to your boss about banning smoking or limiting it to designated areas. Get a letter from your doctor explaining that your health is threatened by ETS in the workplace. Point out that a smoke-free environment will result in greater productivity and lower medical costs.
  • When dining out, always request a table in the nonsmoking section.