Surgeon General misrepresents the dangers of second-hand smoke

Just recently, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a press release about secondhand tobacco smoke. The U.S. Surgeon General says that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger a heart attack and inhaling even a tiny amount of tobacco smoke can cause cancer.

In response to this press release, Dr. Michael Siegel*, a Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University, says that “it is simply not true that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause cardiovascular disease,” and that “inhaling the smallest amount of tobacco smoke does not lead to cancer.”

On heart disease, Dr. Siegel says, “if brief tobacco smoke exposure could cause heart disease, we would sadly see many young people in their twenties and thirties walking around with cardiovascular disease, and many dying from it at those ages. Even active smoking does not generally lead to heart disease unless you smoke for many years. It takes years of exposure to tobacco smoke even for a smoker to develop heart disease. I estimate that it takes at least 25 years of exposure based on the fact that very few smokers are diagnosed with heart disease before age 40.”

On developing cancer from second hand smoke, Dr. Siegel says, “it is not true that someone who inhales the tiniest amount of tobacco smoke may well develop cancer because of it.” It is known that tobacco smoke is a carcinogen and the report implies that there is not safe level of exposure to it. But it is irresponsible to say that there is no safe level of exposure to any carcinogen (i.e. there is no safe level of exposure to car exhaust, the sun’s rays, X-rays, the benzene that is found in some sodas, radon in homes, arsenic that is found in many people’s drinking water).

Overstating such risks is not helpful for people. In fact it is harmful. It takes away our ability to make informed lifestyle decisions and cloaks us in unnecessary fear – all while undermining and discrediting our public health officials and institutions.

*Dr. Siegel has 25 years of experience in the field of tobacco control. He spent two years at the Office on Smoking and Health at CDC, where he conducted research on secondhand smoke and cigarette advertising. He has published nearly 70 papers related to tobacco. He testified in lawsuits against tobacco companies, which resulted, in one case, in an unprecedented $145 billion verdict against the industry.