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Banishing secondhand smoke

Smoking is still a leading cause of heart disease even though fewer people are smoking these days. That’s a testament to the hazard of this habit. It is also because its effects don’t stop with the smoker — they extend to anyone who breathes air polluted by smoke from a cigarette, cigar, or pipe.

Secondhand smoke isn’t an innocuous byproduct of smoking. This mixture of freshly burnt tobacco and exhaled smoke contains hundreds of chemicals, including formaldehyde, benzene, carbon monoxide, ammonia, arsenic, and lead. Some are known to cause cancer. Others are highly toxic to cells all over the body.

An expert panel estimated nonsmokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke at home or work

  • increases their risk of heart disease by 25% to 30%
  • increases their risk of lung cancer by 20% to 30%
  • causes asthma or triggers asthma attacks in children and adults
  • contributes to sudden infant death syndrome
  • is responsible for 50,000 deaths each year in the United States.

Cardiac effects

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States. It has long been linked with lung cancer, and continues to be the prime cause of this disease. But its effects aren’t limited to the lungs.

Smoking also affects the heart and blood vessels. So does secondhand smoke. In fact, routinely breathing secondhand smoke is almost as bad for the heart as smoking.

Since the mid-1980s, studies have shown that secondhand smoke can start or promote artery-clogging atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients to the hardworking heart muscle. It does the same thing in the carotids. It stiffens blood vessels throughout the body, making the heart work harder. Secondhand smoke also immediately affects platelets in the bloodstream, making them more likely to stick to each other. These clumps can be the nucleus around which artery-blocking blood clots form, causing a heart attack or stroke.

A mystery about secondhand smoke is how it can cause nearly the same level of cardiac problems as smoking. A leading idea is that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can make arteries less flexible and promote blood clots. This double whammy could trigger a heart attack or stroke, especially in nonsmokers who already have heart disease.

What to do

If you live with a smoker, the best thing you can do is persuade him or her to quit, and then help in any way that you can.  If you live with a smoker who can’t or won’t quit, ask him or her to smoke outside or just in one room that no one else needs to use.

The workplace can be a big source of exposure to secondhand smoke. If your business allows smoking at work, talk with your managers or, if appropriate, labor union about putting into place changes that protect nonsmokers. A smoke-free policy is best for everyone’s health, and for the company’s bottom line.

If you live in a place without smoke-free regulations, let your representatives know you want them. Patronize businesses that don’t allow smoking. Thank the owners for this healthful service.

Secondhand smoke is much more than a smelly nuisance. It’s a serious public and personal health problem that needs to be treated as such.

June 2010 update

How to Quit Smoking: 10-Minute Consult

Tobacco use may be the toughest unhealthy habit to break. But don’t get discouraged. You can quit. In fact, in the United States today, there are more ex-smokers than smokers. The information in this report can help you learn about common obstacles that arise when people try to quit, and the various techniques to overcome them. Learn more »