Secondhand smoking (SHS) is a term used to describe tobacco smoke inhalation by persons other than the intended smoker. The intended smoker is the one who is actively smoking the tobacco (cigarette, cigar, pipe, or any other form) but since smoke lingers and permeates the air it gets inhaled by other people in the vicinity. Those people are called passive smokers and the smoke that they inhale is also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).
Secondhand smoke is divided into:
- Mainstream smoke – smoke exhaled by the ‘active’ smokers.
- Sidestream smoke – smoke that comes out of the lighted end of cigarettes, cigars, or hookahs. There is evidence to suggest that sidestream smoke contains more carcinogenic particles than mainstream smoke.
Facts about Secondhand Smoke
Passive smoking is almost as dangerous as active smoking. In fact, some researchers suggest that it might be even more dangerous because the direct burning of cigarette releases more toxins in the air than are inhaled by the smoker.
However, most studies agree that toxicology of tobacco is absolutely the same regardless of method of consumption and should be measured by exposure, dosage, duration, and subject’s susceptibility. In other words, passive smoking is as equally dangerous as smoking – especially if you’re spending a lot of time around smokers and surrounded by tobacco smoke.
Some facts about the effects of secondhand smoke:
- Secondhand smoking is responsible for 41,000 deaths per year in the US alone
- In the last 50 years, nearly 2.5 million people died from diseases caused or exacerbated by secondhand smoke
- Secondhand smoking increases the risk of getting lung cancer – roughly 7,300 lung cancer patients die every year in the US – yet they’ve never smoked a cigarette in their life
- Close to 34,000 deaths per year caused by heart disease can be linked to secondhand smoke exposure
- Every single harmful chemical that is in the cigarette can be found in the smoke it releases – this includes over 69 known carcinogen compounds
- Even short-term exposure to secondhand smoke can have detrimental health effects – increased blood pressure, increased risk of cardiac arrest and stroke, and death
Secondhand Smoke Health Effects
Secondhand smoking can be linked to multi-organ cancer onset in adults. Lung cancer is the obvious choice here but there are other cancers that have been linked to passive smoking.
- Breast cancer – increased risk but further study is needed
- Larynx cancer –three times more likely to develop mouth and voice box cancer than people not exposed to secondhand smoke
- Bladder cancer – increased risk but studies are inconclusive – more likely to develop in children who are exposed to SHS
- Nasal cancer – increases the risk of adenoid cystic carcinoma
- Pharynx cancer – seven times more likely to develop pharynx cancer than people not exposed to SHS
Other Diseases Caused by Secondhand Smoke
Secondhand smoke is also linked to other lung diseases, such as COPD, chronic bronchitis, long-lasting colds, and more.
Also, breathing in secondhand smoke has a profound effect on the cardiovascular system and causes heart problems, much like active smoking does for smokers. SHS contains enough nicotine and other toxins to severely impact blood pressure and increase it, increasing heart rate at the same time.
Smoke also causes blood vessels to thicken, increases plaque deposits and makes the blood platelets stickier. This can lead to a fatal heart attack. People with diagnosed heart conditions should be especially careful and avoid inhaling secondhand smoke.
Secondhand smoke has been linked to mood swings and mental disorders. Some studies confirm that people exposed to SHS are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.
Secondhand Smoke and Children
Children and infants are especially vulnerable to the effects of SHS because they cannot get out of the way or protect themselves from it. Children exposed to secondhand smoke will have more health issues than other children and some of those issues may continue into adulthood, causing severe health complications.
- Children exposed to secondhand smoke get sick more often.
- They have underdeveloped lungs and have an increased risk of developing frequent. .pneumonias and bronchitis.
- Secondhand smoke causes excessive wheezing and coughing in children.
- Asthma attacks in children can be caused by secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke can also worsen existing asthma conditions.
- Secondhand smoke can cause ear infections. Children exposed to it also suffer from excessive ear fluid build-up and have to undergo surgeries to get that fluid drained.
SHS has also been linked to SIDS – sudden infant death syndrome. Otherwise inexplicable, SIDS occurs during the first year of child’s life and there is no apparent cause of death. However, research has shown that children whose parents smoked around them die of SIDS more often. They also have increased levels of cotinine (nicotine biological marker) in their system than children who were not exposed to SHS.
Protect your child by:
- Not smoking while you’re pregnant
- Banning cigarettes in your home
- Not allowing anyone to smoke in the presence of your baby
- Not frequenting smoke-filled places with your child
Secondhand Smoke in the Workplace
Most adults get exposed to secondhand smoke in the workplace. It inevitably leads to increased cancer risks and risk of suffering from a heart attack. Fortunately, constant research concerning the detrimental effects that secondhand smoke has on human health has prompted both government and the employers to partially or completely ban workplace smoking. Today, most US states (and most countries in the world) have laws and policies in place which ban smoking in the workplace.
No smoking policies are beneficial for employees but also for employers:
- Maintenance costs go down as furniture and furnishing don’t need to be replaced so often (carpets, drapes, paintwork, and more)
- Insurance premiums go down
- Decrease in labor costs
How to Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Health-conscientious people make it a point to avoid secondhand smoke. This used to be difficult seeing how smoking was a pervasive habit and smokers felt entitled to smoke wherever they wanted. Today, it’s a lot easier as most public places ban smoking and, also, it’s not allowed on planes, trains, buses, and other means of public transportation.
However, people still smoke in their home and in other places and it’s important to take a firm stand about secondhand smoke, even around your loved ones.
- Make sure people know your home is a smoke-free zone – no one smokes in your house. If you have friends who are smokers ask them to smoke on the patio, balcony, or outside or to abstain. Better yet, educate them about hazards of smoking and urge them to quit.
- If you live in an apartment that has a non-smoking policy, make sure that that policy is upheld.
- Talk to your employer about making your workplace a non-smoking area.
- Avoid public places that do not ban smoking – find another favorite bar or a café shop or talk with the proprietor about making their establishment smoke-free.
- When traveling and staying in hotels, make sure that you pick a non-smoking room. Smoke lingers and stays in the carpeting and drapes and can harm your health. Don’t be reluctant to request moving to a different room if you can sense that the room you’re staying in was smoked in.
The best way to avoid secondhand smoke is to make sure you live in a smoke-free environment. This isn’t easy although there are communities that completely ban smoking. If you do not live in one of those and moving is out of the question, at least make sure that everyone around you knows how you feel about secondhand smoke and the effects it has on health. Actively avoid areas that allow smoking and ask your smoker friends not to smoke near you or in the vicinity of your children.
The best thing that you can do, however, is to educate people about consequences of smoking and work hard on bringing about the change you want to see in the world –tobacco-free life.