NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 28, 2006

The dangers posed by secondhand smoke are debatable and likely to remain so given the limitations of epidemiology, says Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason.

It's well established that tobacco smoke can raise the risk of diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease, the question is how much it takes, and is it the only factor?  For example:

  • Doses absorbed by non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke are much smaller than those absorbed by smokers, any health risks would be so small that it is difficult to confirm them in studies.
  • Factors associated with marriage to a smoker (such as poor diet, lack of exercise, or unreported smoking by subjects believed to be lifetime non-smokers) independently raise disease risks.

Surgeon General Richard Carmona's recent report mentions such problems but concludes they probably cannot fully account for the observed associations. The truth is we don't know for sure and probably never will, says Sullum. Whether secondhand smoke is a health hazard or merely a nuisance, people who want to avoid it can do so by avoiding places that allow smoking.

Source: Jacob Sullum, "The science is not in," USA Today, June 28, 2006; and "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 27, 2006.


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