Is Secondhand Smoke Really As Dangerous As Health Officials Say?

By Britni de la Cretaz 02/20/17

A recent in-depth analysis suggests that the effects of secondhand smoke may have been greatly exaggerated. 

Man smoking in car.

Smoking bans around the world have been put in place under the supposedly evidence-based assumption that secondhand smoke is detrimental to the health of people who breathe it in. But recent studies indicate that the positive health benefits of smoking bans may have been massively overstated.

In early 2003, the city of Helena, Montana became the poster child for the movement to implement smoking bans in establishments from restaurants to bars to workplaces, after researchers cited a statistic that the rate of heart attacks had dropped a staggering 60% following a smoking ban, only to jump back up to the original rate once the ban was rescinded.

Despite the small sample size of the study, numerous other small cities seemed to replicate the results of the Helena experiment. And so, a crusade against the dangers of secondhand smoke was put into high gear, with anti-smoking advocates armed with seeming evidence to support smoking bans in almost all public places.

However, more recent research indicates that people may have been too quick to latch onto these small, incredibly flawed studies that had such jaw-dropping findings. An incredibly thorough analysis in Slate takes a look at a lot of the evidence released over the last decade plus, and comes to the conclusion that not only have the dangers of secondhand smoke been incredibly exaggerated, but that the ensuing smoking bans may have gone too far—ostracizing and stigmatizing the smokers they affect.

A 2010 study led by RAND Corp. that looked at all of the research up until that point had a very stark conclusion: “We find no evidence that legislated U.S. smoking bans were associated with short-term reductions in hospital admissions for acute myocardial infarction or other diseases in the elderly, children or working age adults.” In other words, the smoking bans are not having any of the positive health outcomes that prior research had claimed. Many studies done in the ensuing years have found similar results.

The question then becomes, if the smoking bans are strictly for convenience and don’t actually provide beneficial health outcomes, what effect are they having on the increasingly small numbers of smokers they directly affect?

For many of the young people who began smoking as a way of finding community, what was once something they did to bond with others often leaves them as outsiders today. Is it time to loosen some of the smoking bans, particularly in outdoor places? Some people say yes.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.