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Smoking Policies and Secondhand Smoke in Rental Cars

Institution: San Diego State University Research Foundation
Investigator(s): Georg Matt, Ph.D.
Award Cycle: 2006 (Cycle 15) Grant #: 15RT-0160 Award: $609,852
Subject Area: Public Health, Public Policy, and Economics
Award Type: Research Project Awards

Initial Award Abstract
Secondhand smoke (SHS) contains a mixture of more than 4,000 chemicals. Many of these substances have adverse health outcomes in humans, including lung cancer, asthma onset and exacerbation, and acute respiratory illness. It is well known that nonsmokers are exposed to very high doses of SHS when smoking takes place in a car with closed windows. However, nonsmokers may also be exposed to SHS long after smoking has ceased. This is because SHS can attach to surfaces and fabrics with which it comes in contact. This is particularly true for cars in which many materials are excellent SHS reservoirs (e.g., upholstery, carpets, ceiling liner). Protecting nonsmokers from residual SHS in rental cars is particularly difficult because public ordinances do not apply, and the high turnover of renters makes it very likely that within a few months, one or more smokers have used a car and contaminated its interior. Some car rental companies have recently introduced smoking policies, but they are often not very well publicized or difficult to enforce. Little is currently known about the impact of these policies on SHS contamination of rental cars.

The proposed study will (1) document existing smoking policies of car rental companies, (2) examine how these policies are implemented and enforced, (3) investigate whether rental cars are contaminated with SHS, and (3) determine whether existing smoking policies reduce the level of contamination. To investigate these aims, 210 rental cars will be studied that are offered by national and local rental companies in the San Diego metropolitan area. Forty-two cars will be rented, requesting a designated smoker car; 84 cars will be rented requesting a designated nonsmoker car; and 84 cars will be rented without indicating a preference for a smoker or nonsmoker car. In each car, air, dust, and surface wipe samples will be collected to determine SHS contamination. Cars will be inspected for signs of tobacco use, and details about a car’s make, model, year, and mileage will be recorded. Upon the return of the car, local staff of the rental company will be asked about company smoking policies, their implementation, and enforcement. Moreover, a representative of the rental company at the corporate office will be interviewed, and company documents will be examined to describe official company policies.

From this study we will learn how widespread SHS contamination of rental cars is. We will also learn whether designated smoker and nonsmoker cars differ in SHS contamination. Finally, we will gain a better understanding of smoking policies of car rental companies and how these policies are used in local rental offices. Findings from this study will inform policy makers, the public, and car rental companies about SHS contamination of rental cars. Based on this study, better strategies can be developed to protect nonsmokers from SHS exposure in rental cars.