Secondhand smoke is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe, or cigar, and the smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers. This mixture contains more than 4,000 substances, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer in humans or animals and many of which are strong irritants.
Secondhand smoke: protect yourself and your loved ones
Adapted from the US Environmental Protection Agency, Health Canada, and Canadian Lung Assocoiation by SLP Staff
Secondhand smoke is also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS); exposure to secondhand smoke is called involuntary smoking, or passive smoking.
Secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in nonsmokers. Secondhand smoke has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a known cause of lung cancer in humans (Group A carcinogen). Passive smoking is estimated by EPA to cause approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths (in the US) in nonsmokers each year.
Serious effects on children
- Secondhand smoke is a serious health risk to children. Infants and young children whose parents smoke are at increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis. EPA estimates that passive smoking is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age annually, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year.
- Children exposed to secondhand smoke are also more likely to have reduced lung function and symptoms of respiratory irritation like cough, excess phlegm, and wheezing.
- Passive smoking can lead to buildup of fluid in the middle ear, the most common cause of hospitalization of children for an operation.
EPA estimates that, each year, between 200,000 and 1,000,000 asthmatic children have their condition made worse by exposure to secondhand smoke. Passive smoking may also cause thousands of non-asthmatic children to develop asthma each year.
Other health effects
Exposure to secondhand smoke:
- causes irritation of the eye, nose, and throat.
- can also irritate the lungs, leading to coughing, excess phlegm, chest discomfort, and reduced lung function.
- may affect the cardiovascular system.
Protecting your health
In the home
- Don't smoke in your house or permit others to do so.
- If a family member insists on smoking indoors, increase ventilation in the area where smoking takes place.
- Open windows or use exhaust fans. Do not smoke if children are present, particularly infants and toddlers. They are particularly susceptible to the effects of passive smoking. Don't allow baby-sitters or others who work in your home to smoke in the house or near your children.
Where children spend time
The (American) EPA recommends that every organization dealing with children have a smoking policy that effectively protects children from exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. Find out about the smoking policies of the day care providers, pre-schools, schools, and other care-givers for your children. Help other parents understand the serious health risks to children from secondhand smoke. Work with parent/teacher associations, your school board and school administrators, community leaders, and other concerned citizens to make your child's environment smoke free.
In the workplace
Many businesses and organizations already have smoking policies in place but these policies vary in their effectiveness. If your company does not have a smoking policy that effectively controls secondhand smoke, work with appropriate management and labor organizations to establish one.
In restaurants and bars
Know the law concerning smoking in your community. Some communities have banned smoking in places such as restaurants entirely. Others require separate smoking areas in restaurants, although most rely on simply separating smokers and nonsmokers within the same space, which may reduce but not eliminate involuntary exposure to ETS. What you can do:
- Ask to be seated in nonsmoking areas as far from smokers as possible.
- If your community does not have a smoking control ordinance, urge that one be enacted.
- If your local ordinances are not sufficiently protective, urge your local government officials to take action. Few restrictions have been imposed in bars where drinking and smoking seem to go together.
- In the absence of local laws restricting smoking in bars, encourage the proprietor to consider his or her nonsmoking clientele, and frequent places that do so.
- In other indoor spaces
Many provinces including BC have laws prohibiting smoking in public facilities such as schools, hospitals, airports, bus terminals, and other public buildings. Know the law. Take advantage of laws designed to protect you. Federal laws now prohibit smoking on all airline flights within Canada and on all Canadian bus travel.
If you smoke: protecting others
If you choose to smoke, here are some things you can do to help protect the people close to you:
- Don't smoke around children. Their lungs are very susceptible to smoke.
- If you are expecting a child, quit smoking.
- Take an active role in the development of your company's smoking policy. Encourage the offering of smoking cessation programs for those who want them.
- Keep your home smoke free. Nonsmokers can get lung cancer from exposure to your smoke. Because smoke lingers in the air, people may be exposed even if they are not present while you smoke.
- If you must smoke inside, limit smoking to a room where you can open windows for cross-ventilation. Be sure the room in which you smoke has a working smoke detector to lessen the risk of fire.
- Test your home for radon. Radon contamination in combination with smoking is a much greater health risk than either one individually.
- Don't smoke in an automobile with the windows closed if passengers are present. The high concentration of smoke in a small, closed compartment substantially increases the exposure of other passengers.
- More than two million people quit smoking every year, most of them on their own, without the aid of a program or medication. If you want to quit smoking, assistance is available. Smoking cessation programs can help. Your employer may offer programs, or ask your doctor for advice.