Choosing to smoke and destroying your own health is one thing but passive smoking, also known as Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) or Secondhand Smoke (SHS), damages the health of those around you. These people have no choice as to whether or not they are exposed to your harmful smoke. Passive smoking constitutes a serious public health risk to both children and adults. It is also a major source of indoor air pollution. A non-smoker is subjected to both the “sidestream” smoke from the burning tip of the cigarette and the “mainstream” smoke that has been inhaled and then is exhaled into their environment by the smoker. Nearly four-fifths of the smoke that builds up in a room containing a smoker is of the more harmful “sidestream” type.
It is not too much of a conceptual leap to understand that the smoke from cigarettes, which is so bad for the smoker, is also damaging to everyone else. Tobacco smoke contains over 4000 chemical compounds, including at least 40 cancer-causing carcinogenic agents. Tobacco smoke also contains carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas, which inhibits the transportation of oxygen to the body’s vital organs via the blood. The smoke emitted from the tip of a cigarette has about double the concentration of nicotine and tar as the smoke being directly inhaled by the smoker. It also contains about three times the amount of the carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene, five times the level of carbon monoxide and about 50 times the amount of ammonia. Add to these the other chemicals in the smoke like arsenic, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and hydrogen cyanide and you have a very unappetizing toxic gas cocktail. Remember that the passive smoker receives all of this and gets none of the enjoyment that you get out of smoking in return. Many of the potentially toxic gasses in the smoke are present in higher concentrations in the “sidestream” smoke than in the “mainstream” smoke. In tests tobacco specific carcinogens have been found in samples of blood or urine provided by non-smokers who have been exposed to passive smoking.
Any person exposed to passive smoking may experience short-term symptoms such as a headache, a cough, wheezing, an eye irritation, a sore throat, nausea or dizziness. Adults with asthma may also experience a significant decline in lung function when exposed to secondhand smoke. Under these conditions it can take as little as half an hour for an individual’s coronary blood flow to become reduced.
It was estimated that prolonged exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, such as in the home, increases the risk of lung cancer by approximately 20 to 25%. Even if you do not accept the accuracy of these percentages, it is well established that you have an increased chance of developing lung cancer through passive smoking if you are a non-smoker but live with someone who smokes. The chances of suffering from ischaemic heart disease is greater for those exposed to passive smoking compared to those who are not. Studies have shown that the risk of experiencing a heart attack is believed to be almost doubled by regular exposure to secondhand smoke.
Some of the most serious damage inflicted by passive smoking is done to children during their formative years. As you would expect, a child’s bronchial tubes are smaller and their immune systems are less developed making them more susceptible to the harmful effects of passive smoking. Because their airways are smaller, children breathe faster than adults and, consequently, they actually breathe in comparatively more of the harmful chemicals in the smoke, based on their body weight, than adults do. Few parents who smoke would continue to do so if they knew the potential harm that they were doing to their children. Young children, by necessity, spend a lot of time at home and maternal smoking is one of the major sources of passive smoking because of the child’s close proximity to their parents during early childhood.
Exposure to tobacco smoke can double the chances of your child requiring hospitalisation for illnesses like bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia that affect the lower respiratory tract, especially during the first year of life. They are also more likely to suffer from ear infections (glue ear), tonsillitis, and asthma. Passive smoking is known to be one of the main contributing factors in the development of childhood asthma. It can exacerbate existing asthma, increasing both the frequency of the attack and its severity. Secondhand tobacco smoke may damage a child’s olfactory function so that they have difficulty differentiating certain smells. There is also the chance that passive smoking may have a negative effect on a child’s cognitive abilities, impairing their ability to read or use reasoning skills.
Just as a woman should not smoke during pregnancy, she should not be exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke. There are links between parental smoking and the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or “cot death”. It has been estimated that the infants of mothers who smoke are put at almost five times the risk of dying from “cot death” when compared to the infants of mothers who do not smoke. Yet a poll organised by ‘SmokeFree London’ discovered that only 3% of the adults surveyed knew of this connection between passive smoking and “cot death”. Passive smoking is also a recognised factor in lowering the birth weight of babies.
Not only can passive smoking harm your foetus but it can also reduce the chances of you getting pregnant in the first place. Female fertility can suffer because of passive smoking, making it harder to conceive a child.
Passive smoking can even put your pets at risk of developing cancer. One US study observed that passive smoking increased the incidence of feline lymphoma in cats and the likelihood of them developing health complications increased the longer they were exposed to passive smoking.
To continue to smoke and put the health of your family and loved-ones at risk would seem, on the face of it, to be a rather selfish act. When you take into account the damage that smoking is doing to your own body then it seems more like insanity. Think of how traumatic it would be if a member of your family became ill or died because of your smoking habit. Now consider the fact that they would feel exactly the same way if smoking ended your life prematurely or made you seriously ill. You may find yourself asking “Why do I still smoke?”