Second-hand smoke: It's a blow to your health

Dr Cassy Richmond
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
While it doesn't seem entirely fair, did you know that you could be at risk of developing a number of smoking-related illnesses without even ever taking a puff of a cigarette yourself?

Dr Cassy Richmond discusses how second-hand smoke may be a blow to your health.

What is second-hand smoke?
Second-hand smoke is a combination of two types of smoke: the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette (or cigar or pipe) and the smoke exhaled by a smoker.

Passive smoking, also called involuntary smoking, occurs when someone is exposed to second-hand smoke because they are in the vicinity of someone else who is actively smoking. Passive smoking can occur at a variety of places, including at home or someone else's house, in the car, as well as some public places.

Is second-hand smoke so bad?
Have no doubt: Second-hand smoke is noxious. It contains more than 4000 chemicals, 250 of which are known to be toxic or carcinogenic (think arsenic, vinyl chloride, formaldehyde, toluene, etc). In 2006, the US Office of the Surgeon General (which provides Americans with the most up-to-date evidence-based information about several health issues) reported that no level of second-hand smoke exposure should be considered risk-free (ie, even low levels of exposure may cause harm).

VIEW GALLERY: How did these celebrities quit smoking?

What are the effects of second-hand smoke?
Depending on the duration and amount of exposure to second-hand smoke, a passive smoker may be at risk of developing a range of illnesses. In adults, studies have shown that second-hand smoke is a risk factor for lung disease among nonsmokers. In fact, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, passive smoking may increase the risk of lung cancer by as much as 30 percent in those who are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke.

In addition, because second-hand smoke can irritate the airways, it may cause a reduction in normal lung function for nonsmokers — and contribute to the risk of developing chronic obstructive airways disease (emphysema and chronic bronchitis).

Passive smoking is also now considered a major preventable cause of cardiovascular disease among nonsmokers. Even brief exposures to second-hand smoke can damage the lining of blood vessels and cause platelets to become stickier. These changes may contribute to coronary artery disease and heart attacks as well as lead to strokes.

In children, the effects are also serious. Studies have shown that infants who are exposed to second-hand smoke after birth are at greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In addition, children who are exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to develop severe lung infections (such as pneumonia), ear infections, and asthma.

Are there any laws to protect us from second-hand smoke?
It's not all bad news. Thankfully, there are laws to protect us. In Australia (as well as in some other parts of the world), federal and state laws ban smoking in certain places.

It seems pretty unbelievable that people could once smoke on aeroplanes or at the movies, right? Now, smoking is prohibited in enclosed public places, including airports, domestic and international flights, restaurants and bars, schools, and shopping centres.

Additionally, in some states (such as NSW and Victoria), recent legislation has been passed to ban smoking in the car when a child under 16 years of age is present. Second-hand smoke is understood to be so harmful now that some states are looking into also banning smoking in certain outdoor public places.

Yous say: is the government doing enough?

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