UTHCT physician evaluates secondhand smoke’s effect on people with lung diseases for Surgeon General’s report

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Smoking-related diseases kill about 430,700 Americans each year, while smoking costs the United States approximately $97.2 billion annually in health care costs and lost productivity. Smoking is the cause of 87 percent of lung cancer cases, as well as most cases of emphysema and bronchitis.

These statistics from the American Lung Association show how damaging tobacco smoke is. And you don’t have to smoke tobacco yourself to be harmed by it, according to a recent U.S. Surgeon General’s report. Secondhand smoke is definitely hazardous to everyone’s health, regardless of who you are or how much secondhand smoke you breathe, the report says.

Because of his expertise as a lung specialist, David Coultas, MD, chairman of the Department of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, was asked to author part of the report. Dr. Coultas has served on a number of national committees for the National Institutes of Health, the National Research Council, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Coultas is board certified in internal medicine and pulmonary disease.

“The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke” finds that even brief exposures to secondhand smoke can cause harm. In one of the report’s 10 chapters, Dr. Coultas wrote about the respiratory effects that secondhand smoke causes in adults.

The report, released this past June, has six major conclusions:

  1. Many millions of American children and adults are exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes and workplaces despite progress in controlling where tobacco can be smoked.
  2. Secondhand smoke exposure causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke.
  3. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at acute risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma. Smoking by parents causes respiratory symptoms and slows lung growth in their children.
  4. Exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer.
  5. Scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure. And
  6. Eliminating smoking in indoor spaces fully protects nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke. However, separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate exposure of nonsmokers to secondhand smoke.

According to the report, nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke have a 25 to 30 percent higher risk of developing heart disease and a 20 to 30 percent higher risk of developing lung cancer. Almost half of the U.S. population is regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, the report says. The report concludes that the only way to protect nonsmokers from the toxic chemicals in secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking indoors.

“Secondhand smoke is a preventable cause of death and illness. In the United States, an estimated 50,000 deaths from heart disease and lung cancer, along with hundreds of thousands of illnesses in children – including middle ear infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia – are attributed to secondhand smoke exposure,” Dr. Coultas said.

In addition to his duties at UTHSCT, Dr. Coultas also sees patients at the Harold G. Habenicht Women’s Center at Laird Memorial Hospital, 1612 S. Henderson Blvd. in Kilgore. Patients may be referred to him by their primary care doctors, or patients who need a pulmonary consultation may make an appointment with him. Dr. Coultas is available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Tuesday at Laird Memorial Hospital in Kilgore. For more information or to make an appointment, call (903) 877-5122.

Several UTHSCT scientists are conducting basic research into the effects of secondhand smoke. Amir Shams, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, recently received a $325,000, three-year grant from the Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute. He is investigating whether secondhand cigarette smoke makes individuals more susceptible to infection by the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. FAMRI sponsors scientific and medical research into the early detection, prevention, treatment, and cure of diseases and medical conditions caused by exposure to tobacco smoke.

In addition, UTHSCT Vice President for Research Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D., is examining secondhand smoke’s effects on how blood clotting relates to scar formation in the lungs. And Barry Starcher, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry, is studying secondhand smoke’s effects on sun-damaged skin. Each received a three-year, $324,000 grant from FAMRI. Dr. Idell is in the first year of his grant; Dr. Starcher is in the second year of his.

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