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Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths worldwide.
Experts warn that smoking and chewing tobacco are harmful habits that can lead to mental and behavioral disorders. Smoking cigarettes can also increase the risk of using other drugs such as cannabis, alcohol, and volatile solvents.
It’s important to understand that smoking and chewing tobacco, in any form, are classified as mental and behavioral disorders according to the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision). These habits are considered substance abuse and have similar implications as alcohol, opioids, and cannabinoids. (1)
Moreover, it is not just smokers who are affected by the harmful effects of tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke (SHS) or passive smoking is the smoke that nonsmokers inhale when they are in close proximity to smokers. It can be from any kind of product such as cigars, cigarettes, burning tobacco, and hookahs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no safe grade of exposure to secondhand smoke, and even short exposure can result in severe health issues. (2)
Secondhand smoke is a mixture of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe and the smoke exhaled by the smoker. It contains over 7,000 chemicals, including at least 70 that are known to cause cancer.
When non-smokers inhale secondhand smoke, they are exposed to the same toxic chemicals that smokers inhale. (2) Secondhand smoke is also known as environmental tobacco smoke [ETS].
This article will explore the negative effects of secondhand smoke on nonsmokers and how it can impact their overall health.
Harmful Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke
Exposure to secondhand smoke can cause a range of health problems in nonsmokers, including respiratory problems, heart disease, and cancer.
In fact, according to the US Surgeon General, exposure to secondhand smoke caused 2.5 million deaths between 1964 and 2014. (3)
Nonsmokers are predisposed to the following health risks if they inhale secondhand smoke.
1. Heart disease
Secondhand smoke is a big-time culprit for heart issues.
One study revealed that, compared to nonsmokers who weren’t exposed to secondhand smoke, those exposed to low to moderate levels (1–14 or 1–19 cigarettes per day) had a 16% higher risk of heart disease. Those exposed to moderate to high levels (15 or more cigarettes per day) had a 44% higher risk. (4) Here are some of them:
Heart attack and stroke
When you breathe in secondhand smoke, you increase your chances of developing heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes.
Secondhand smoke is a definite cause of stroke. (3) To make it worse, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and even short-term exposure can up your risk of heart attacks, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Examinations on animals, humans, and cells have also shown that secondhand smoke can negatively impact the cardiovascular system.
In the United States, nearly 34,000 nonsmokers die from heart disease each year due to exposure to secondhand smoke. Not only this, but secondhand smoke exposure causes more than 8,000 deaths from strokes. (7)
Researchers have shown that secondhand smoke exposure decreases after smoking bans are put in place. (6) Overall, the evidence suggests that there is a link between secondhand smoke exposure and an increased risk of heart attacks.
Coronary heart diseases
It turns out that being around secondhand smoke is no joke. Researchers reveal a link between risks of coronary heart disease-related mortality and exposure to secondhand smoke in both men and women.
Nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke are 25%–30% more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Even the walls of your carotid arteries can thicken from inhaling secondhand smoke. (5)
According to a study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual conference, people who were around secondhand smoke recently had a 35% higher chance of getting heart failure compared to those who were not exposed to tobacco smoke.
Previously, it has been shown that secondhand smoke can make an existing heart failure worse. (8)
2. Respiratory problems such as asthma and COPD
Secondhand smoking can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing pulmonary diseases.
There is a risk of respiratory symptoms, asthma, and COPD in adults who were exposed to secondhand smoke at different stages of their lives. According to a study, individuals who were exposed to secondhand smoke had increased risk ratios for wheezing, cough, and shortness of breath (dyspnea). (9)
Research evidence also suggests a strong link between secondhand smoke exposure and irritation of the mucous membranes of the nose.
A study shared that being around secondhand smoke can make asthma symptoms worse, reduce lung function, and make people use more medicine or go to the doctor more often. It can also lower their quality of life. (9)
3. Cancer including lung, breast, and nasal cancers
Secondhand smoke has been classified as a human carcinogen by multiple respected organizations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Even the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shared that it can cause cancer in the workplace.
The Surgeon General says that from 2005 to 2009, more than 7,300 nonsmoking adults died from lung cancer each year because of secondhand smoke exposure.
But that’s not all. Some studies show that it might also up your risk for other cancers such as breast cancer and cancer of the nasal and sinus cavities. Plus, it could be linked to leukemia, lymphoma, and brain tumors in kids.
More studies are still needed to support these results, but it’s definitely not worth taking any chances when it comes to secondhand smoke. (10)
4. Secondhand smoke and children
Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Since their little bodies are still growing and developing, and the toxins in secondhand smoke can put them at risk of some serious health problems.
When kids breathe in secondhand smoke, they can get all kinds of problems, such as ear infections, colds, and even pneumonia. Plus, it makes asthma worse and slows down the growth of their lungs. That means they might feel breathless, wheezy, and cough a lot. (10)
Unfortunately, about 4 out of 10 kids in the United States are exposed to secondhand smoke. It can worsen their respiratory problems, such as sinusitis, bronchitis, and postnasal drip. Additionally, it can make them more likely to catch colds and sore throats. (11)
The EPA says that between 200,000 and 1,000,000 kids with asthma experience worsened symptoms due to secondhand smoke. Additionally, exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to more missed days of school due to respiratory issues, particularly among kids with asthma. (12)
Exposure to secondhand smoke can mess with kids’ hearing. Breathing in smoke can cause swelling and infections in the middle ear, leading to pain and fluid buildup, making it hard for them to hear. (11)
Increased risk of health problems during adulthood
Breathing in secondhand smoke from tobacco is bad for kids because it can increase their chances of getting metabolic syndrome. This is a disorder that increases the risks of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes.
Furthermore, if children are exposed to more secondhand smoke, they are more likely to become smokers when they are older.
Even moderate exposure to secondhand smoke is not good for kids. It can make the big blood vessels in their belly less stretchy, which is a sign of heart problems later in life. (12)
Risk of fertility issues
Women who were around secondhand smoke for at least 6 hours every day when they were kids and adults are more likely to have a miscarriage. They may also have trouble getting pregnant and having a baby because their body might not be able to keep the fertilized egg healthy. (12)
5. Secondhand smoke and pregnancy
Secondhand smoke exposure during pregnancy and early life can lead to poor birth outcomes. This can include impaired lung development, low birth weight, and preterm delivery. Basically, secondhand smoke is bad news for babies.
Low birth weight
Secondhand smoke is a known preventable cause of low birth weight, which can lead to infant mortality and health complications later in life. Secondhand smoke exposure to nonsmoking mothers increases the risk of a birth weight below 2,500 g in infants by 22%. (11)(12)
Infant death and health issues
Smoking during pregnancy is a major risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Infants who die from SIDS tend to have higher concentrations of nicotine in their lungs, even if smoking is not reported.
Also, infants exposed to secondhand smoke have a higher risk of respiratory infections and hospitalization, especially when their mothers smoke around them. Early exposure to cigarette smoke is a significant risk factor for subsequent respiratory disease. (12)
Secondhand smoke exposure can impair a child’s ability to learn and is neurotoxic even at low levels. Over 21.9 million children are calculated to be at risk of reading issues because of secondhand smoke.
Moreover, children exposed to elevated levels of secondhand smoke have incredible deficits in mathematics and reasoning capacities.
Additionally, children born to women who are exposed to secondhand smoke during pregnancy are more probable to suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder with aggression, depression, and other behavioral issues. (12)
Where Are You Most Exposed to Secondhand Smoke?
Secondhand smoke exposure can happen in various places. Your home and workplace are two of the most common places where you may be exposed to secondhand smoke. Public places such as bars, restaurants, and casinos are also risky areas.
Living in housing where multiple people live, such as apartments, also increases your chances of exposure. Even if nobody in your home smokes, you can still be exposed to secondhand smoke from neighboring units through ventilation systems, halls, and stairs. (2)
How to Reduce Exposure to Secondhand Smoke?
The best way to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke is to avoid it altogether. (11) Here are some tips:
- Keep your home free of smoke and don’t allow anyone to light up inside, even with the windows open. If you live with someone who smokes, encourage them to quit or to smoke outside.
- If possible, try to stay away from places where smoking is allowed, such as bars, restaurants, and public buildings.
- Don’t let anyone smoke in your car, whether or not the windows are down.
- If you are a smoker, consider quitting for your own health and the health of those around you.
- Educate your children on the dangers of secondhand smoke and encourage them to steer clear of it.
Note: It’s also important to note that even if you don’t see or smell smoke, you may still be exposed to secondhand smoke. Smoke can travel through vents, doorways, and other openings, so it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and avoid areas where smoking is allowed. (2)
Is Secondhand Smoke From E-Cigarettes Also Harmful?
E-Cigarettes are super popular nowadays, but some folks are wondering if the little particles that users breathe out – also known as secondhand vapor – are dangerous for people who inhale it.
Scientists are still figuring out the health effects of being around this secondhand smoke but as of now, experts and researchers have stated that the vapor can still expose nonusers to nicotine and other harmful chemicals. (13)
Note: In 2019, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman implemented a ban on the sale, storage, and production of e-cigarettes. This decision was made after recommendations from a group of ministers, led by Sitharaman. The government’s main goal in banning e-cigarettes is to safeguard the health of young people, who are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of these devices. (14)
Additional Information About Smoking and Secondhand Smoking
- Around 267 million Indian adults (29% of all adults) use tobacco, based on the Global Adult Tobacco Survey India, 2016-2017. (15)
- Tobacco use is a major public health threat globally, causing loss of lives and significant social and economic costs. The economic costs attributed to tobacco use in India in 2017-2018 for individuals aged 35 years and above amounted to INR 177,341 crore (USD 27.5 billion). (16)
- Females have a higher prevalence of exposure to secondhand smoke inside homes. (17)
- One in four adults is exposed to secondhand smoke in public places.
- In the United States, the percentage of people who smoke cigarettes has decreased since 1964, but approximately 1 in 7 adults still smoke. Smoking rates are higher among men, individuals with lower education, those living in poverty, and those with psychiatric disorders. (18)
What Is Thirdhand Smoke?
Thirdhand smoke refers to the harmful chemicals from tobacco that stick to surfaces such as walls, clothes, hair, toys, and furniture in places where people have smoked before.
When you visit public areas such as hotels, clubs, bars, or restaurants, you may be exposed to higher amounts of these chemicals. It’s important to be aware of these risks even if you’re not directly smoking. (19)
Most-Asked Questions About Secondhand Smoke
What is secondhand smoke?
Secondhand smoke is the smoke that is exhaled by a smoker or that comes from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe.
Can secondhand smoke cause long-term damage to my health?
Yes, exposure to secondhand smoke can cause long-term damage to your health, especially if you are exposed to it over a long period.
What should I do if I am exposed to secondhand smoke?
If you are exposed to secondhand smoke, remove yourself from the area as quickly as possible. If you are unable to do so, cover your nose and mouth with a cloth or mask to filter out some of the smoke.
Secondhand smoke can have a variety of negative effects on both adults and children. It has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems, among other health issues.
Children, pregnant women, and individuals with preexisting health conditions are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.