Lung Cancer and Secondhand Smoke

Playground with young lungs at play sign

Lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women, is usually associated with people who smoke. And with valid reason. According to the American Cancer Society, about 80 percent of lung cancer deaths result from smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes. 

What about Secondhand Smoke?

While secondhand or environmental tobacco smoke may not be as widely discussed, the dangers are very real. Every year, approximately 41,000 nonsmoking adults and 400 infants die from health problems related to secondhand smoke exposure. Lung cancer accounts for about 7,300 of those deaths.

What Is Secondhand Smoke? 

Secondhand smoke is the smoke that comes from burning tobacco products, as well as the smoke a person who is smoking exhales. Tobacco smoke contains hundreds of toxic chemicals, at least 70 of which can cause cancer. 

Is Secondhand Vapor Dangerous?

Even though e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as “tobacco” products. Researchers are still studying the health effects of vaping (and inhaling secondhand vapor), but it is important to note that e-cigarette vapor does contain some cancer-causing chemicals.

How Much Secondhand Smoke Exposure Is Safe?

There is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure. Even brief exposure can damage cells in ways that set the cancer process in motion. As is the case the active smokers, a person’s risk of developing lung cancer increases the longer they inhale secondhand smoke.

Despite increasingly stringent no-smoking policies at worksites and public spaces, voluntary smoke-free homes, and decreasing numbers of cigarette smokers, the most recent statistics indicate about 58 million nonsmokers are still exposed to secondhand smoke every year. This includes children. According to the CDC, about 4 in 10 U.S. children ages 3-11 years are exposed to secondhand smoke regularly.

Beyond Lung Cancer: Health Effects in Children

In children, secondhand smoke can cause:

  • Ear infections
  • More frequent and severe asthma attacks
  • Respiratory symptoms like coughing and sneezing
  • Respiratory infections including bronchitis and pneumonia
  • A greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome. This also applies to babies whose mothers smoked while pregnant.

Children are exposed to secondhand smoke mainly at home. Make your home (and vehicles) smoke-free to help protect your children.

Health Effects in Adults

In addition to lung cancer, secondhand smoke in adults who have never smoked can cause:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Reproductive effects in women: low birth weight

Smoking Cessation Opportunities

If you or someone close to you smokes and wants to make a healthy change by quitting, Lancaster General Health offers a variety of resources to help. Options range from group classes to one-on-one coaching. Learn more here

Smokers can also assess their risk for lung cancer with our Lung Cancer Assessment.

author name

David J. Cziperle, MD

David J. Cziperle, MD is a thoracic surgeon with the Ann B Barshinger Cancer Institute. Dr. Cziperle is a graduate of the Loyola University School of Medicine. He completed his residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a fellowship at Loyola University Medical Center. Board certified in thoracic surgery, Dr. Cziperle is passionate about providing customized care to meet the needs of patients dealing with a lung cancer diagnosis.

Call: 717-544-9400

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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