Thirty years ago, smoky air was something many nonsmokers begrudgingly put up with from time to time. If you went to a disco or a diner, smoky air was just the way it was. You wanted to be there, and smoking was just a part of the scene. Maybe you or some of your friends were the smokers.

Many people wondered back then whether breathing this secondhand smoke, or environment tobacco smoke (ETS) as it has come to be called, might be hazardous to one’s health. Indeed it is. This hunch has been supported by numerous scientific studies substantiating a link between chronic ETS exposure and several health risks. In 1986, two major reports on ETS, by the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Research Council, prompted many states, businesses and other organizations to tighten smoking regulations.

Workers grew more concerned about the importance of air quality in their work environments. And many nonsmokers breathed a sigh of relief to hear others agree that clean air was a greater fundamental right than smoking. Nonsmokers have changed their thinking from “It’s too bad it’s so smoky in here,” to “It’s not right that I should have to breathe these toxic fumes!”

Are nonsmokers overreacting, as the tobacco companies have charged? Just how toxic is secondhand smoke?

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