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Podcast: Clearing the Air

Narrator:  2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health. This series of podcasts celebrates the progress made—and the work still to be done—to end tobacco-related disease and death. 

Secondhand smoke causes immediate harm and hurts anyone who breathes it. It can cause lung cancer, heart disease, and sudden infant death syndrome, and there is NO safe amount of secondhand smoke.

Although great progress has been made to protect nonsmokers at work and at home, about 88 million nonsmokers are still exposed to secondhand smoke in the United States.

Today, Cynthia Hallett, Executive Director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, describes her sense of urgency to clear the air of secondhand smoke in all workplaces, so that workers will no longer have to make a choice between their health and a paycheck.

Cynthia Hallett: The issue of secondhand smoke is critical to us being able to continue to make progress on policy issues. This isn't something that the industry or anybody can criticize and say, well, it's an individual choice, it's an individual behavior. Secondhand smoke drifts, and it's an equal opportunity killer. That became very important because the nonsmokers' rights movement was the number one threat to the tobacco industry. And there's even this wonderful quote that the industry says, you know, what the smoker does to himself or herself is one thing, but what the smoke does to the innocent victims—the children, the elderly—is something quite else.

Narrator: Cynthia discusses the importance of giving a voice to victims who are suffering from secondhand smoke in their workplaces.

Cynthia Hallett: When we work on these smoke-free policy issues, it's critical that we bring the affected parties to the table to give them a voice. If you don't involve the victims who are getting sick from this unwanted exposure, people are thinking this is about individual rights, when really it's about everyone's right to have a safe, healthy, smoke-free workplace. So we really need to remember that there is a very large portion that still needs to be protected.

Narrator: One of Cynthia’s heroes is a former casino worker, Sheryl Wilkins.

Cynthia Hallett: We met her in February of 2011 when we were doing interviews with casino workers to tell us how challenging it was for them to work in smoke-filled environments. And she came to us because she had stage 4 throat cancer. And she couldn't speak very well, but she did tell us her story, and she really wanted to fight hard, because she was angry. 

Narrator: Sheryl described her situation in a 2011 interview with Cynthia:

Sheryl Wilkins:  I have always hated cigarette smoke. I’ve never smoked a day in my life. But in the casino business that’s what you put up with. I began to think well, 'how unfair is this?' that there are places that have nonsmoking for their employees but not for us. I just couldn't up and leave, I mean I still had my bills to pay, and a family, so I stuck with it. In 2006 I was not feeling good I had a lump on my neck and I kept getting tests done. And on September 18, 2007 I got a call from the doctor, and at that time they told me I had cancer.

Cynthia Hallett: Unfortunately, Sheryl lost her battle with throat cancer on August 3, 2012.  And so she's my hero, because she said in that original interview, I can't talk anymore, be my voice, and that's my charge. That's why I do this work. For people like Sheryl, who can't.

Narrator: The opinions expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Health and Human Services. This podcast is a production of the Office of the Surgeon General and CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.  For more information, go to