Secondhand smoke takes a sizable toll on Americans’ health and productivity, particularly among black Americans, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).
Mining data collected between 2003 and 2006 by large government surveys, the researchers calculated that secondhand smoke kills 42,000 Americans each year, including nearly 900 infants. Secondhand smoke is linked to some of the same fatal illnesses caused by smoking, including heart and lung disease, and in babies, low birth weight, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and respiratory distress syndrome.
Overall, the researchers found that yearly deaths from secondhand smoke accounted for about 600,000 years of potential life lost, or an average of 14.2 years per person. The price tag for that lost productivity loss equaled $6.6 billion in total — about $158,000 per death.
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“One of the things our research tells us is that even though people are smoking less and more laws have been put in place to prevent smoking in public, the problem has not gone away,” says lead study author Dr. Wendy Max, a professor of health economics at the UCSF School of Nursing and co-director of the UCSF Institute for Health & Aging. “We still have a ways to go. These deaths from secondhand smoke tell us that individuals make choices about their smoking behaviors based on themselves, but they need to think about how their smoking impacts others.”
A previous study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also measured the health and economic impacts of secondhand smoking, using data from the California Environmental Protection Agency. The difference between the earlier study and the current one is that the CDC data were based on self-reports secondhand smoke exposure; the new study relied on an objective measure, called serum cotinine, to assess evidence of nicotine exposure in the blood.
“Some people may say they’re not exposed to secondhand smoke, but they forget about the smokey bus ride they took in the morning or when they walked through the park and someone was smoking near them,” says Max.