Protecting Yourself from Wildfire Smoke: Essential Tips

During the summer, wildfire smoke from other states and Canada often impacts air quality across the Midwest and East Coast. As these events become more frequent, it’s important to know how to protect yourself.

Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particulate matter that can make anyone sick. However, children, older adults, and people with chronic respiratory or cardiovascular disease are at higher risk. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the pollutant of most concern from wildfire smoke is fine particulate matter (PM 2.5,) a mix of microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and affect the heart and circulatory system.

According to Yale Medicine, inhaling wildfire smoke will cause symptoms similar to allergies, such as stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, coughing, sinus irritation, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Additionally, breathing in smoke can also cause headaches, fatigue, and a fast heartbeat.

By following these steps, you can better protect yourself and your loved ones:

  1. Follow Medical Advice: Ensure you have necessary medications and follow any specific advice from healthcare providers. If you have asthma, make sure to follow your Asthma Action Plan. If you are having trouble breathing, or if your symptoms worsen, call your doctor immediately.
  2. Avoid Activities that Increase Indoor Air Pollution: Avoid smoking, frying, or broiling food, or using a gas stove, as these activities create more pollution. Burning candles or incense also increases indoor air pollution. Even vacuuming can stir up particles already inside your home.
  3. Stay Indoors: Limit outdoor activities when air quality is poor, especially for sensitive groups. If you must go outside, consider wearing an N95 mask.
  4. Keep Windows Closed: Prevent smoke from entering your home and keep yourself cool by using fans and air conditioning to limit stress on your body from hot temperatures.
  5. Use Air Filters: HEPA air filters can significantly reduce indoor pollution. Check out the RHA blog post detailing how to pick out the right air filter for your home.
  6. Monitor Air Quality: Sign up for alerts on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency websites like Enviroflash or AirNow to stay informed about local air quality.

Biden Administration Delays Menthol Ban

April 29, 2024 – Chicago, IL – Last Friday the Biden administration released a statement delaying issuance of a final rule eliminating menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. This comes despite the rules being widely supported by medical and public health organizations.

“We have a responsibility to protect our citizens, especially our youth, from the effects of tobacco,” said Joel Africk, CEO and President of Respiratory Health Association. “Lung cancer is still the number one cancer killer of men and women in the United States. The Biden Administration is shirking its responsibility and jeopardizing its proposed Cancer Moonshot Initiative’s goals by delaying this implementation.”

Data have shown that flavored tobacco products, including menthol, mask the harsh flavor of tobacco, and for that reason they are widely preferred by first-time smokers.  Eliminating flavored tobacco products is expected to discourage smoking, especially for new smokers.

The tobacco industry has a long history of using flavored tobacco products, including menthol, to target youth and underrepresented communities with their addictive and harmful products. 93% of African American adults who smoke started by using menthol cigarettes compared to 44% of white adults. Eliminating them fully will protect kids and reduce health disparities. The 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that flavored cigars are the second most popular tobacco product among high school students.

The need is greater than ever to strengthen protections against flavored tobacco and increase programming to protect our youth from the dangers of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. RHA and our partners will continue the fight to remove these harmful products from the market.


Respiratory Health Association has been a local public health leader in Illinois since 1906, focusing on lung health and clean air issues. RHA works to prevent lung disease, promote clean air, and help people live better through education, research, and policy change. As a policy leader, RHA is committed to advancing innovative and meaningful tobacco control policies. We have been one of the state’s leading advocates for federal oversight of tobacco and vaping products, smoke-free laws, Tobacco 21, and other tobacco product policies.

RHA Statement on the Passing of Karen Yarbrough

During her tenure representing Maywood in the Illinois General Assembly, Karen Yarbrough was a champion for lung health and a leader in the fight for Smoke Free Illinois. She worked tirelessly, shoulder to shoulder with RHA and other organizations championing the importance of banning smoking in virtually all indoor public places in the state, and protecting the health of Illinoisians. Her twin goals of public health and public safety carried through her tenure in the legislature, and on to her work as Cook County Clerk. Her passion, commitment, and energy will be missed.

Respiratory Health Association expresses its deep condolences to her friends, colleagues and family on the loss of such an incredible person and public servant. May her memory be a blessing.

Respiratory Health Association Endorses HB 4504/SB3203 – Capping the Cost of Co-Pays for Prescription Inhalers

Since 2000, many asthma patients have used Flovent as their go-to inhaler. However, in January 2024, drugmaker GSK announced the discontinuation of Flovent, in favor of producing a generic version. Prescription inhalers contain medications that prevent and treat symptoms – include coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness- for people living with acute respiratory conditions and chronic lung diseases, like asthma and COPD. Poor adherence or not using inhaler as prescribed can exacerbate symptoms, leading to higher risks of breathing difficulties and asthma attacks, a decrease in quality of life and increases in school/work absenteeism emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and even death.

According to GoodRx and NPR, a Flovent inhaler which cost $230 a decade ago, last retailed at $340. The new generic version costs around $310, allowing GSK to sell the drug without a history of price hikes and limiting their risk of price hike penalties. According to a nationwide CDC-funded study, the annual per-person medical cost of asthma is $3,266, of which $1,830 is for prescriptions. HB 4504 and SB 3203 amend the Insurance Code to require health plans to limit co-pays for prescription inhalers for a covered person to $25 per 30-day supply. Additionally, the bill prevents prescription inhalers from being subject to a deductible.

People with chronic lung disease often need two to three inhalers. Financial barriers to inhalers increase the chance a patient will experience exacerbated symptoms and increase the risk of death. These financial barriers also increase the state’s healthcare costs, especially for hospitalizations. A 2022 poll found about 1 in 4 adults who take prescription drugs reported difficulty affording their costs, including about 1 in 3 who take 4 or more prescriptions. For children with asthma specifically, research has found associations between higher cost sharing for asthma medications and higher rates of asthma hospitalizations.

More than 1.4 million people in Illinois have chronic lung disease, including 160,000 children with asthma. Asthma is a leading cause of missed work and school days nationwide. One in three Illinois children with asthma report having symptoms in the last 14 days. In 2017, 1 in 4 Illinois children with asthma reported missing a day of school or day care in the past month due to asthma, costing $53.6 million annually and affecting student learning. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “deaths due to asthma are rare and are thought to be largely preventable.” Yet in 2021, there were 124 asthma-related deaths, the sixth highest rate in the nation. In Illinois, the death rate for Black people with asthma is 5.5 times higher than for White people. Passing bills SB3203 and HB4504, which are supported by nearly 20 public health organizations and hospital systems statewide, would ensure access to life-saving inhalers for all and cap their costs and prioritize the well-being of every individual.

RHA Statement on FDA Inaction on Youth Vaping

In Illinois and across the nation, the surge in youth vaping isn’t just a matter of experimentation; it’s a public health crisis that demands immediate attention. Children are exposing themselves to harmful chemicals like nicotine and formaldehyde, which jeopardizes their developing bodies and increases the likelihood of addiction not just to nicotine, but to other substances as well.

At the heart of this crisis lies disposable, flavored e-cigarettes, the majority of which are manufactured overseas. While the FDA took a commendable step in 2020 by banning pod-based e-cigarettes, they neglected to impose restrictions on their disposable counterparts, creating a dangerous loophole. Consequently, more than 5,800 unique disposable products have flooded the market- a staggering 1,500% increase from early 2020. These products are designed to entice children with sweet, candy-like flavors, flashy packaging, and aggressive marketing on social media. It’s no surprise that 85% of youth e-cigarette users prefer flavored products, with fruit and candy options topping the list.

The harsh reality is that the majority of these products are being sold illegally, blatantly violating FDA regulations. The Food and Drug Administration must move to approve each e-cigarette product before they can be sold. These flashy, kid-friendly flavored products that are helping drive youth vaping rates should not be available for sale. The FDA must do its job, enforce existing regulations, and crackdown on the sale of illegal, flavored vapes that directly endanger American children. Thankfully, we have a U.S. Senator in Dick Durbin who has been pressuring the FDA to stop this illegal market and we commend him for his work. Yet, we still need more members of the community and other elected officials to address this issue before it’s too late.

We will keep you posted on the latest developments and please sign our action alert.

Evanston Limits the Sale of E-Cigarettes, Flavored Tobacco, and Synthetic Nicotine

Evanston has once again shown itself to be a leader in the state of Illinois by keeping its residents safe from the health impacts of consuming tobacco products. In a City Council meeting on November 27, the Evanston City Council voted 6-3 to pass an ordinance banning the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products – including menthol cigarettes and synthetic nicotine. Respiratory Health Association applauds the Evanston City Council, as well as the residents, advocates, and organizations that supported the protective measure. The passage of this comprehensive ban and the resulting restriction of the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, will help end the cycle of addiction and protect against the deadly impact of tobacco use.

“Thank you, Evanston City Council, for standing up to the tobacco industry and proposing this bold, lifesaving policy,” said Joel Africk, CEO and President of Respiratory Health Association.

RHA and Partners Awarded Federal Grant to Improve Air Quality by Reducing Transportation Emissions

CHICAGO – Respiratory Health Association (RHA), in partnership with ComEd, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the Argonne and Oak Ridge national laboratories, announced it has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to receive one of just seven awards made nationally through the federal Clean Energy to Communities (C2C) initiative.

The $500,000 federal award will support regional efforts to understand and inform strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the adoption of all-electric transportation options. Over the next three years, grant partners will conduct research and modeling to better understand the types and the scale of action needed to lower carbon emissions in the transportation sector.

“Reducing air pollution from motor vehicles will benefit everyone who breathes—not just people living with asthma and other chronic lung diseases,” said Joel Africk, President and CEO of Respiratory Health Association. “The positive impact of this project will be felt throughout the Midwest, and particularly in poorer communities where vehicular traffic is disproportionately heavy.”

Nationwide, transportation is now the largest single source of planet-warming gases, and transportation accounts for 32% of northeastern Illinois’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, further complicated by the Chicago region’s role as a freight and logistics hub. Recent studies reveal that the transition to electric vehicles in Illinois has the potential to provide significant health benefits, with RHA finding as many as 400 premature deaths in Illinois each year due to air pollution from diesel engine emissions alone.

Learn more about the C2C award partnership.

FDA’s Proposed Rules to Prohibit Menthol Cigarettes and Flavored Cigars Will Protect Lung Health

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed product standards that ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors (including menthol) in cigars. The decision comes as the result of a citizen complaint filed by public health organizations and over a decade of advocacy efforts.

“Respiratory Health Association applauds the FDA’s decision to move forward with greater regulation of these harmful tobacco products,” commented Joel Africk, RHA’s President & Chief Executive Officer. “We continue to fight to reduce the burden of tobacco-related lung illnesses in our communities and believe removing menthol products from store shelves is the right thing to do.”

The less harsh, mint-like flavoring of menthol products makes them easier to smoke and often appeals to younger or new smokers. Additionally, tobacco companies have historically marketed these products to teens and in minority communities. Studies have shown as many as 70% of teen smokers use menthol cigarettes. Of Black smokers, nearly 85% smoke menthol cigarettes compared to 30% of all white smokers – contributing to health disparities including risk for lung disease. In total, an estimated 18.6 million current smokers use menthol cigarettes.

“Big Tobacco – a multi-billion-dollar industry – has long used menthol flavoring to target new smokers and minority communities,” continued Africk. “The FDA’s move will prevent a new generation of smokers, help address significant lung health inequities, and save lives.”

The FDA’s rules also offer protections to consumers, as enforcement will only address manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. RHA looks forward to President Biden’s administration finalizing these new rules – and helping implement a policy that focuses on improving lung health and holding the tobacco industry accountable instead of criminalizing individual use of these products.

For media inquiries, please contact Joe Siebelts at or (312) 628-0204.


Respiratory Health Association has been a local public health leader in Illinois since 1906, focusing on lung health and clean air issues. RHA works to prevent lung disease, promote clean air, and help people live better through education, research, and policy change. As a policy leader, RHA is committed to advancing innovative and meaningful tobacco control policies. We have been one of the state’s leading advocates for federal oversight of tobacco and vaping products, smoke-free laws, Tobacco 21, and other tobacco product policies.

Opposition to Proposed Watered-Down Chicago Tobacco Control Ordinance

For Immediate Release

September 4, 2020


Opposition to Proposed Watered-Down Chicago Tobacco Control Ordinance


September 4, 2020 – Chicago, IL – Today the Chicago City Council Committee on Health and Human Relations met to vote on a revised and greatly weakened ordinance to regulate the sale of flavored tobacco products in Chicago. Respiratory Health Association’s President & Chief Executive Officer, Joel Africk, has issued the following statement in opposition to the revised ordinance. This statement was originally given as testimony during the committee meeting.

“Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. Respiratory Health Association opposes the watered-down flavored tobacco substitute ordinance.  Chicago needs restrictions on all flavored and menthol products, including conventional cigarettes that are killing our vulnerable communities.  This ordinance is unanimously opposed by Respiratory Health Association, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Lung Association—the local patient service organizations who have spent the past 30 years advising Chicago government on tobacco control policy.

For almost 20 years—and until today– Chicago has had an unblemished record of getting tough on Big Tobacco. That record has driven smoking rates in Chicago to their lowest rates on record.  In each case, the key has been to reject the watered-down versions of laws deemed as more acceptable to the tobacco industry.  You see, the Big Tobacco playbook says to oppose tobacco control until it is inevitable, and then water it down as much as possible to preserve cigarette sales.  That tactic works because the watered-down ordinances relieve the political pressure to do something more comprehensive. That’s a pretty effective tactic.   Watered-down ordinances relieve political pressure.  And the legislature can always claim “at least we did something.”

In December 2005, with unanimous support from the service organizations, this Council passed one of the strongest smoke-free laws in the United States, under the leadership of Ald. Ed Smith.  The Council did so because it didn’t take a watered-down deal. There were offers of watered-down deals. “No smoking in restaurants but not bars.”  “Exclude Chicago’s private clubs.”  The watered-down offers kept flowing.  But this Council said no, and it passed a comprehensive Chicago smoke-free ordinance that saves an estimated 2500 lives a year.  Chicago resisted the same argument being advanced here, that a weaker watered-down ordinance would “do some good” and be a stepping stone on the way to solving a public health problem that is addicting and killing our community in record numbers.

The specific problem with the watered-down substitute ordinance here is that it lets people addicted to vaping simply switch back to flavored cigarettes, including menthol cigarettes, and continue their addiction.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  That is what Altria, the parent of Philip Morris, acknowledged in July 2020 in the Wall Street Journal.  Vaping-only restrictions, like the one before you, have caused sales of conventional cigarettes to increase.  It’s like plugging one leak in your pipe and leaving the other leaks un-repaired.

So, who wins and who loses from the passage of this substitute ordinance instead of the alderman’s original ordinance?  It’s easy to see who wins.  Big Tobacco wins.  The tobacco companies get to sell more cigarettes, including flavors and menthol, to Chicagoans. The ordinance gives young people who vape a chance to move to conventional cigarettes.  That is what Altria reported.  So we know who wins.

And who loses?  Who typically loses these things?  How about the vulnerable populations with high smoking rates, especially for menthol cigarettes, including young African American Chicagoans, who have already increased smoking regular cigarettes by 30% in the past two years?  They need a comprehensive solution to the problem, but instead they will continue to live with increased heart disease, lung disease, and cancer.  All because the substitute ordinance doesn’t solve the real problem.   Aren’t they the ones who always lose?

That is why this substitute ordinance is opposed by all of the local service organizations.  We pick up the pieces from what the tobacco industry lobbyists and some selfish retailers leave behind.  We see the patients who are sick.  We help people addicted to tobacco break their addiction. And we are trying to end the racial disparities in so many diseases tied to tobacco use.  It would be better to pass no ordinance at all, and let the political pressure build for true tobacco control in the City of Chicago.

We ask you to reject the substitute ordinance.”

A Statement on Racial Justice

To the Respiratory Health Association community,

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor have sparked outrage, sadness, and fear across the country. These tragic, preventable deaths and countless others lay bare the persistent racial inequities in our society – inequities that represent a crisis for public health.

Respiratory Health Association supports the protesters and those who are speaking out for racial justice.

To say anything else betrays our guiding principles and vision of healthy lungs and clean air for all. We cannot achieve health equity without addressing the systemic racism that is so deeply rooted in our country. As we watch current events unfold during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded that the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on black and brown communities and is simply the latest in a long list of inequities.

As we stand together demanding change, we must not confuse the actions of those seeking justice and systemic reform with the opportunistic actions of others seeking to harm the movement. Confusing those narratives only adds injustice to injustice.

We appreciate the seriousness of the challenges facing our country and support the work of the many organizations working on the front lines for racial equality, including many such organizations here in Chicago.


Joel Africk
President & CEO
Respiratory Health Association