You don’t smoke, but the people around you do.  How bad is that?

According to U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, who issued a long-anticipated report on June 27, “[T]he debate is over: the science is clear.”  Secondhand smoke is an “alarming” health hazard, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths among nonsmokers each year 

The Surgeon General’s report will add momentum to surging efforts to ban smoking in all public spaces, including workplaces, restaurants and bars.  It also may inspire parents who smoke to take stronger measures to protect their children.

“Children are especially vulnerable to the poisons of secondhand smoke,” said Dr. Carmona, citing the impact on their health and development.  He also said that secondhand smoke is a cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accounting for 430 deaths in 2005 alone.  Twenty-two percent of children are exposed to smoke in their homes.  The Surgeon General urged parents who smoke to quit or, at the very least, to take their smoking outside.  “Make the home a smoke-free environment,” he said.

The battle for smoke-free bars, restaurants and other workplaces in the United States has been building for the last decade.  In Canada, it is almost over.  There, virtually all territories and provinces have adopted general bans.  Even in the U.S., restrictions are rapidly spreading.  Twelve states have banned smoking in all public buildings, including bars.  Another half dozen bar it in all public buildings and restaurants.  In states without statewide bans, scores of local municipalities have instituted their own limitations.  And the momentum is building from year to year.

Whose Rights Matter Most?

For some smokers, the habit is a pleasure; for others it is an addiction.  Should these people have the right to smoke in public places?  “Bottom line,” said a R.J. Reynolds company spokesperson, “we believe adults should be able to patronize establishments that permit smoking if they choose to do so.”

Exercising that liberty, however, requires that non-smokers endure the side effects.  This can be especially difficult for restaurant and bar employees who must work constantly in a smoke-filled environment.  The Surgeon General found that neither separating smokers and non-smokers nor using proper ventilation in a shared space is effective at controlling exposure.

 The full report is online.