Myth: Secondhand Smoke Is a Killer

This report originally ran on May 12, 2006.

Secondhand smoke -- even a little is a killer. It's why more of you smokers are banned from bars, restaurants, now even building entrances.

One public service announcement proclaims, "When you smoke, you're not the only one being harmed."

That's not a myth. Studies that followed nonsmokers who lived with smokers found some increase in lung cancer and heart disease. But they studied people who were exposed to lots of smoke, often shut in with chain smokers for years in claustrophobic situations like homes and cars. Even then, some of the studies found no effect. Nevertheless it's been enough to launch a movement to ban smoking most everywhere.

And now Calabasas, Calif., has banned smoking everywhere outdoors where a nonsmoker could get within 20 feet of a smoker. The former mayor, Barry Groveman, said, "It's about public safety."

"This is by every standard a public health law," Groveman said.

How Big Is the Risk?

But if they limit people's choices in the name of public health, we should know if walking past a smoker can really hurt you. I fell for the alarmists' claims years ago when I interviewed activist Stanton Glantz about secondhand smoke.

"And if I were to walk up to you and have an aerosol can filled with 4,000 chemicals and say, 'Excuse me, do you mind if I spray this in your face,' you'd think I was out of my mind, but when somebody smokes a cigarette, that's what they're doing," Glantz said.

Glantz and other activists now say just 20 or 30 minutes of smoke puts you on the road to a deadly heart attack.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a leading advocate of bans on smoking in the workplace because of the harm from daily exposure to secondhand smoke, says the 20 or 30 minute claims are ridiculous.

"If someone is just exposed for 30 minutes, it's completely reversible, and it's not gonna cause hardening of the arteries," Siegel said.

Siegel, who helped ban smoking in restaurants and bars, now says his movement is distorting science.

The Crusade

"It has turned into more of a crusade," Siegel said. "The cause has kind of taken over."

Some anti-smoking advocates want it banned even inside apartments.

"Now people are complaining about smoke going from one apartment to another apartment," Glantz said.

Glantz said the people in other apartments could be harmed since the "level of toxicity in the smoke is very very high."

Frankly, I like the smoke-free zones, but the science behind them may be a myth.

"I think the documented health effects of secondhand smoke are enough. I don't think we need to be stretching the truth," Siegel said.

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