Secondhand Smoke Kills 42,000 Every Year

By Amir Khan on September 30, 2012 7:58 AM EDT

Smoking
The news that secondhand smoke is dangerous is nothing new, but now, a new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, details just how deadly it is. Researchers found that secondhand smoke kills 42,000 nonsmokers every year -- including 900 infants. (Photo: Reuters)

The news that secondhand smoke is dangerous is nothing new, but now, a new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, details just how deadly it is. Researchers found that secondhand smoke kills 42,000 nonsmokers every year -- including 900 infants.

In total, 600,000 potential life years are lost annually because of secondhand smoke, researchers said, amounting to $6.6 billion in lost productivity. The deaths disproportionately affect African-Americans, with black infants at particular risk.

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According to a recent Gallup poll, many smokers and nonsmokers are unaware of the dangers of secondhand smoke. Only 28 percent of smokers said secondhand smoke is harmful to adults, with 63 percent of nonsmokers saying the same.

To determine the number of deaths, researchers looked at a biomarker called cotinine, which is a byproduct of smoking and is proportional to tobacco exposure in the blood. Researchers looked at cotinine levels in the blood of people who died and found that heart disease deaths are lower than previously thought, but lung cancer deaths are much higher.

"It is true that smoking is banned in many public places and workplaces," Wendy Max, professor of health economics at the UCSF School of Nursing, told LiveScience. "However, our use of the biomarker indicates that people are still being exposed more than we realized. Much of this may be at home, but not all. Studies show that even small amounts of secondhand smoke exposure may have a negative impact on health, particularly for people who are vulnerable for various reasons."

African-Americans accounted for 13 percent of all deaths, by up to 36 percent of infant deaths from secondhand smoke, researchers said.

"This burden results in communities of color suffering relatively greater losses," Max said.

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