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'Debate Over' on Secondhand Smoke

Surgeon General Says No Level of Secondhand Smoke Is Safe
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 27, 2006 -- The federal government branded secondhand smoke a public health hazard Monday, urging states and individuals to do more to minimize nonsmoker's exposure to cigarette smoke.

"The debate is over. The science is clear," U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, MD, told reporters Tuesday. "There is no risk-free level of secondhand exposure," he said.

Carmona's office released an exhaustive report on secondhand smoke detailing hundreds of scientific studies showing that cigarettes are toxic to bystanders as well as to smokers.

Among the report's findings are that secondhand smoke raises the risk of lung cancerlung cancer by 20% to 30% in nonsmokers. The report also blames "tens of thousands" of heart diseaseheart disease cases each year on secondhand smoke.

The damaging effects of secondhand smoke have been known for years, and were detailed in a similar surgeon general's report in 1986. But newer findings now implicate ambient smoke in homes and public places in increasing the risk of asthmaasthma attacks, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and blood vessel damage -- sometimes even after relatively brief exposures.

The report also notes that that indoor smoking sections and even ventilation have been shown to be ineffective in keeping nonsmokers from exposure.

State and Local Bans

Fourteen states and hundreds of local governments have banned smoking in public places -- including restaurants and bars -- as a way to minimize secondhand smoke exposure.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says the report leaves "no doubt" that states and local governments should act immediately to ban smoking in public areas.

"It can't be left up to voluntary action," he tells WebMD.

Carmona urged states to push forward with rules guaranteeing smoke-free environments. "Anything less cannot ensure that nonsmokers are protected," he says. But when asked what role the federal government should take in minimizing exposure to a known carcinogen, Carmona said those decisions are up to Congress.

Many major cities, including New York City and Washington, have banned smoking in bars and restaurants. In Washington, the move was billed as a way to lower secondhand smoke exposure for patrons, and especially for workers.

Owners and their trade groups have actively opposed the ordinances, citing worries that new laws would chase smoking clientele from bars and restaurants.

Perspective of Restaurant Operators

A statement issued Tuesday by the American Restaurant Association says, "Restaurant operators, like most Americans, want to be free to make their own choices -- choices that are best for them, their employees, and their customers."

The statement goes on to say, "Customers also have a choice in what establishments they patronize based on their own personal needs, tastes, and preferences."

Smoking is banned in nearly all federal buildings, with one notable exception. Members of the House of Representatives still are allowed to smoke in the Speaker's lobby just off the House floor. Secondhand smoke remains a fact of life for nonsmoking lawmakers -- and reporters -- who frequent the room.

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