Slim Majority in U.S. Call Secondhand Smoke Very Harmful

Slim Majority in U.S. Call Secondhand Smoke Very Harmful

by Lydia Saad

Views differ between parents who smoke vs. don't smoke

PRINCETON, NJ -- Less than half of U.S. smokers with children younger than 18, 44%, believe exposure to secondhand smoke is "very harmful" to adults. That contrasts with two-thirds of parents who don't smoke, and 61% of adult nonsmokers without children younger than 18. Meanwhile, relatively few smokers who don't have minor-aged children, 29%, consider secondhand smoke very harmful.

Perceived Seriousness of Health Risk Posed by Secondhand Smoke

Essentially, solid majorities of nonsmokers believe secondhand smoke is very harmful, and whether a nonsmoker has children makes little difference. By contrast, less than half of smokers consider secondhand smoke a significant health hazard, although smokers with children are more likely to rate it very harmful than are smokers without children. Roughly one in five parents of children in the U.S. smoke -- 22% -- similar to the 20% found among adults with no minor-aged children.

These findings are based on combined data from Gallup's annual updates on smoking and tobacco from 2010 through 2014. The question about secondhand smoke refers to its health effects on adults, specifically. While concern could be higher if the question asked about the effects on children, it's likely that gaps between smokers and nonsmokers would persist.

Additionally, it's not clear that the risks of secondhand smoke are any greater to children than to adults. According to the U.S. surgeon general's 2006 report on secondhand smoke, "Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma." And the report offers this summary of the health consequences for adults: "Exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer."

Public Concern About Secondhand Smoke Remains Steady

Americans' awareness of the risks of secondhand smoke is significantly higher today than it was 20 years ago when barely a third (36%) called it very harmful. However, despite the surgeon general's strong warnings in 2006, recognition has consistently hovered near 55% since the late 1990s, apart from one slightly lower reading in 1999.

Seriousness of Health Risk from Secondhand Smoke

Despite the broad stability of views over the past 15 years, smokers who have children younger than 18 have become slightly more likely to see secondhand smoke as at least somewhat harmful -- at 85% in the 2010-2014 period, up from an average 79% in 2003-2008. However, the percentage calling it very harmful is barely higher, at 44% in the last five years versus 42% in the prior decade.

Overall, Americans' awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke continues to lag far behind their acknowledgement that smoking is dangerous to smokers themselves. Since Gallup initiated this trend in 2002, a steady eight in 10 Americans have described smoking as very harmful to adults who smoke.

Seriousness of Health Risk of Smoking to Smokers Themselves

Bottom Line

Gallup has long documented a chasm in smokers' and nonsmokers' stated belief that smoking is very harmful to smokers. This could be a matter of smokers downplaying the risks because they don't want to believe smoking is dangerous. Or it could be tied to smokers' lower levels of education, on average, compared with nonsmokers. In any case, the awareness gap is a detriment to smokers themselves.

The dynamic is completely different with respect to secondhand smoke. The failure of many smokers to fully appreciate the health risks of so-called involuntary smoking may make them less careful about avoiding nonsmokers when they light up. And when they smoke around children, those who suffer are both faultless and helpless.

With fewer than six in 10 adults perceiving secondhand smoke as very harmful, significant room exists for public awareness to grow. Whatever information has been available over the past decade has evidently not been persuasive enough to increase public understanding about the extent of the risks, so a different approach may be necessary. Also, developing messages that elevate smokers' concern about the dangers their habit poses to others would seem to be particularly important.

Survey Methods

Results for the most recent Gallup findings are based on telephone interviews conducted July 7-10, 2014, with a random sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.

Results based on the aggregated 2010-2014 sample include interviews with 6,090 national adults, aged 18 and older.

For results based on the sample of 254 smokers with children under 18, the margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the sample of 1,121 nonsmokers with children under 18, the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the sample of 762 smokers with no children under 18, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the sample of 3,796 nonsmokers with no children under 18, the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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