Secondhand smoke is a women’s issue

Guest Blogger – Jaime Jenett, MPH, Policy Coordinator, Contra Costa Tobacco Prevention Project

Worldwide, 40% of women are exposed to secondhand smoke regularly. Secondhand smoke doesn’t only make us sick, it’s killing us. Women make up 47% of the 600,000 annual secondhand smoke deaths throughout the world, compared to 26% men.

I always found secondhand smoke irritating but I never knew how dangerous it is until I started working in tobacco control. I didn’t know this toxic substance can actually trigger cardiac events in people with heart disease or that even low levels are harmful.

The majority of the secondhand smoke complaint calls I take as part of my job are from women. They usually call because secondhand smoke is drifting from a neighboring apartment or condominium. Many of the women and their children have health issues that are being made worse by the smoke. They are literally trapped in their homes with toxic fumes. They call me because they don’t know what to do.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Surgeon General have determined that the most effective way to protect people from secondhand smoke is through secondhand smoke protections policies. Despite this, only 7.4% of the world lives in jurisdictions with comprehensive smoke-free laws. In California, the state law protects people in a few places including most indoor workplaces. In the last ten years, an increasing number of local communities are adding even more protections.

I don’t always have a solution for the callers, but sometimes I get to tell these women that there are laws in place to protect them. In our County, 6 out of 19 jurisdictions have strong secondhand smoke laws. If a woman lives in one of these communities, I explain what protections she is entitled to and help with enforcement. If she isn’t already protected, I get to do one of my favorite parts of my job.

I get to watch people blossom from victims into educated, passionate advocates. Our office provides information, skills and support to community members who want stronger secondhand smoke protections. Armed with the information they need, people can do amazing things. When I started my job, only one community in our County had a comprehensive secondhand smoke law. A little over four years later, six communities have these types of laws and more are waiting in the wings.

I recently went to a city council meeting where all six of the advocates that spoke in favor of stronger secondhand smoke protections were women. They were eloquent and passionate and crystal clear about what they wanted and why. Every one of them had started their journey to the microphone with a phone call to our office.

My fervent hope this International Women’s Day is that all the women of the world get the information and skills they need to advocate for the resources they need to live happy, healthy lives, including secondhand smoke protections.


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