Thirdhand smoke is the chemical residue from tobacco smoke. It is also called “tobacco smoke residue” or “stale tobacco smoke.” The chemicals in thirdhand smoke are toxic to humans, especially children. Thirdhand smoke can linger for years in dust and on household surfaces. It can also become embedded in carpets, furniture, clothes, and building materials. It is difficult and expensive to remove.
Federal laws protect everyone from secondhand smoke exposure on airplanes and in federal buildings. There are no federal laws that protect workers in the workplace. Workplace smoking bans are put in place by employers or result from state and local laws. Some states have total workplace smoking bans, while others have partial or no bans. Employers may ban smoking in the workplace, even in states that do not have any bans. Smoking bans in the workplace protect workers from secondhand smoke and the build-up of thirdhand smoke. Smoking bans do not protect against thirdhand smoke that is already there.
In California and 27 other states in the United States, employers may not discriminate against employees for legal activities outside the workplace, like smoking. An employer in these states cannot refuse to hire someone because they smoke unless being a nonsmoker is a job requirement. For example, a medical office could choose to hire only nonsmokers to protect their patients from thirdhand smoke. But even in states where employers can refuse to hire smokers, very few employers do. One exception is Alaska Airlines, which has required all employees to be nonsmokers since 1985. More recently, U-Haul announced in February 2020 that they would require all new employees to be nonsmokers and non-users of nicotine products. Nationwide, an increasing number of large hospital systems are adopting this hiring practice, with about 20% of hospitals in the US refusing to hire smokers. The World Health Organization has also adopted this policy. These hiring policies protect all workers, patients, clients, and customers from thirdhand smoke exposure, and encourage tobacco cessation among people who do smoke.
Employees can ask for protection from tobacco smoke exposure. Protections include separating smokers and nonsmokers into different areas and improving ventilation systems. These legal protections were developed to protect against secondhand smoke exposure and may not offer much protection from thirdhand smoke exposure.
If you are concerned about thirdhand smoke exposure at work, we encourage you to educate co-workers and supervisors about thirdhand smoke. We also recommend reviewing your state and employer’s policies for secondhand smoke exposure. Protection from thirdhand smoke is essential if you have a precondition that puts you at greater risk, such as asthma, or if you are pregnant. Working with colleagues at your workplace and organizations such as your local American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and resources like us (firstname.lastname@example.org) can help. In California, your local Tobacco Control Coalition and your local Health Department can also provide you with important resources. Consider citing the ADA Act when proposing changes in workplace accommodations regarding tobacco smoke exposure.
Do you have more questions about the toxic legacy of tobacco smoke, how it affects human health, and what we can do about it? Learn more here.
Updated April 2023
National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). Tobacco Smoking. 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/tobacco/tobaccosmoking.html
Patell R, Schmidt H. Should employers be permitted not to hire smokers? A review of US legal provisions. Int J Health PolicyManage. 2017;6(12):701-706U-Haul.
U-Haul to Implement Nicotine-Free Hiring Policy for Healthier Workforce. 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.uhaul.com/Articles/About/19926/U-Haul-To-Implement-Nicotine-Free-Hiring-Policy-For-Healthier-Workforce/