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What is passive smoking, and is it really that bad?

You don’t inhale all the smoke from your cigarettes.

So where does it go?

The answer is simple but brutal; it goes to everyone else.

What is passive smoking?

Think of the process of smoking. You inhale, exhale, and the cigarette burns the entire time. That inhale only puts so much smoke into your lungs. Exhaling blows it right back out, and the lit end emits smoke the entire time.  

What you inhale is called mainstream smoke. That residual tobacco smoke lingers in the air. It doesn’t magically disappear, never to be inhaled again. Instead, it’s left to be breathed in by anyone in the area. Non-smokers inhaling tobacco smoke creates passive smoking.  

Passive smoking means breathing in tobacco smoke indirectly. That could be from a person currently smoking or someone who smoked in an area hours before.

Passive smoke is also known as secondhand smoke, indirect smoke, environmental tobacco smoke, or sidestream smoke.

Chances are, if you’re smoking, you’re dishing out secondhand smoke.

When does passive smoking happen?

Smoke travels easily, even outdoors. You’ve probably witnessed someone cough while walking into your cloud of smoke. A person a few meters away might even turn their nose up and walk another direction. That isn’t always dramatics. Inhaling passive smoke is as unpleasant as non-smokers make it seem. 

If you smoke, passive smoking will happen. An exception would be smoking in an area that no one else has or will ever enter. And that just isn’t very likely. 

  • If you’re smoking in the “smoking area” of a public park, you’re still generating secondhand smoke.  

  • If you’re smoking in the front seat while everyone else is in the back, they’re still passive smoking.

  • If you’re smoking in your hotel room 2 hours before you check out and the next person checks in, you’re still generating secondhand smoke.

Given that the toxins from tobacco smoke linger in an area for up to five hours, there aren’t too many scenarios where passive smoking doesn’t happen. There will always be some sort of passive smoke exposure to either people currently around you, or people that will soon be in that area.

Can passive smoke be limited?

If you watch movies or tv shows from as little as fifteen years ago, you can find footage of people willingly and legally lighting cigarettes indoors. This isn’t just part of the drama for the camera; smoking in public spaces was very real. Indoor workplaces, hotels, restaurants, bowling alleys, you name it. All this indoor smoking meant lots of smoke breathed by non smokers.

In many places, regulations to limit or prevent smoking in a public enclosed space are still pretty new. In the UK, for example, smoking indoors publicly was only banned in 2007. Other places such as the US are only a few years ahead, imposing bans around the late 1990’s.

This was done to “limit” involuntary smoking. However, all it did was push people to pollute the air outside with secondhand smoke, instead of the air inside.

Indoor or outdoor, air contaminated with secondhand smoke is still unhealthy.

Truth is, the only way to “limit” secondhand smoke is to ditch tobacco products altogether and consume your nicotine in other ways. 

What are options for nicotine replacement? 

Passive smoke poses health risks just like mainstream smoke does. Making the decision to impact your own health is one you’re at full liberty to make. But, where do you draw a line when it comes to imposing those health risks on other people?

If you’re open to being considerate enough to switch your tobacco product to something else, you have a few options.

Nicotine can be replaced in the form of vaping, chewing gum, patches, and even mints. All options allow you to still have an oral habit and indulge in nicotine, but without the health risks of smoking traditional cigarettes.

If you enjoy the inhale-exhale motion of smoking, but want a less problematic method, vaping is your best bet. The NHS has cited that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking and a great way to cut down on passive smoke.

Passive vs active smoking

Sadly, the only difference here is the literal action. One person actively inhales the mainstream smoke, accepting risks willingly. The other doesn’t, but has no choice in how it impacts their body. 

Smokers only get the smoke they inhale. Anyone around them inhales their exhaled smoke and the smoke from the lit end of the cigarette.

Not to mention the makeup of the toxins in the smoke from the lit end of a cigarette is even more potent. None of the toxins have been diluted.

All things considered, passive smoking might be worse.

How passive smoke effects non smokers

If learning about what passive smoke is and when it occurs wasn’t jarring enough, there’s also all the negative health effects it causes.

Looking at the effects of passive smoking on nonsmokers is eye opening. You probably know what it can do to you, but what about others?

Inhalation of indirect smoke can cause the same effects as active smoking. So, yes, the people in your presence while you smoke are also at risk of developing smoking related diseases.

Secondhand smoke produces a specific genetic marker called cotinine. When doctors exam people or autopsy bodies, it’s easier to tell if their death or health problems link to passive smoking.

There’s no exception on the age or gender of the people affected. From babies in the womb to the elderly, secondhand smoke deteriorates health.

Health risks of passive smoking

Secondhand smokers are at risk for developing the same diseases as direct smokers. Lung cancer, heart disease, plaque build up in blood vessels, asthma and other lung conditions such as COPD have been cited to affect secondhand smokers.

Adults—especially elderly—constantly exposed to other people’s smoke also have a greater risk of suffering a heart attack.

The risk of lung cancer doesn’t go away

Lung cancer has been used for years to attempt to scare people away from smoking. And so it should. Recent studies show tobacco smoke induced cancers extend to people that don’t smoke directly. Meaning you can still develop lung cancer, even if you've never smoked.

Considering all the other lung conditions that come from exposure to secondhand smoke, this isn’t a surprise. It doesn’t matter where a nonsmoker is exposed or how. Their risk of lung cancer will increase up to 30%.

Even with modern medicine, the survival rate for one year of lung cancer is only 40%. Human bodies can’t discern between an actively or passively ingested chemical. Even without the choice to indulge in cigarettes, fatal health risks happen.

Nicotine addiction from passive smoking

Did you know - the nicotine in the air can provide a buzz?

Unknown nicotine addictions can stem from repeated exposure. For nonsmokers, this is a nasty experience. If someone isn’t a smoker, it won’t always click that they could possibly have a nicotine addiction. But if they do, withdrawal symptoms will appear when they aren’t around the secondhand smoke. Randomly feeling depressed, trouble sleeping, irritability, and anxiety accompany nicotine withdrawal.

For some, withdrawal symptoms can be severe. Experiencing these things without knowing what’s really going on raises alarms. Seeking treatment would be beneficial, but, how do you treat an addiction you aren't aware of?

What can happen if someone is aware of their nicotine addiction?

Say you smoke around your spouse and they are aware of their fixation to nicotine. They can tell they feel different when they aren’t around your secondhand smoke. That addiction has already been developed and pinpointed. Making it more likely for them to pick up the smokes to ease the discomfort of withdrawal. Turning a non-smoker into a smoker is one of the most devastating effects of passive smoke. 

The risk for heart disease increases

Smoke ages the heart, too, not just looks. Coronary heart disease is the second leading cause of death in the UK.

This umbrella term refers to different types of heart issues and the maladies they cause. High blood pressure, cardiac arrest, heart attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and arrhythmia all accompany heart disease.

Exposure to tobacco smoke is a main cause for developing heart disease. There used to be an idea that heart issues only affected the elderly. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In tandem with passive smoke, heart disease has become more common in people less than eighty years old. Passive smoking increases risk for heart disease by 30% after exposure.

Strokes and seizures become more likely 

Forms of cancer may take time to onset, however other issues like strokes and seizures can happen immediately. Often, they’re just as dangerous.

Cigarette smoke raises heart rate and constricts blood vessels. But, it’s impossible to know when someone’s body will give an additional response that could be fatal. The chances of these immediate adverse effects are 20-30% more likely to happen after a person has been exposed to tobacco smoke.

Pregnancy becomes high risk

Society has always had a habit of treating pregnant women like they’re fragile. In some ways, they are. Every substance a woman is exposed to during pregnancy affects her unborn baby, too.

Of course pregnant women shouldn't smoke.

What isn't so widely known is that they shouldn't even be exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

When a pregnant woman breathes in air polluted with toxins from smoke, those toxins are passed on to the baby. Pregnant women exposed to someone who is actively smoking regularly can subject unborn babies to low birth weight, decreased lung function, higher risk of developing a cleft palate, SIDS, and a weakened cardiovascular system.

In some cases, even miscarriages. Frankly, a cigarette isn’t worth being responsible for any of these things… even if unintentionally.

Children suffer developmentally

Being a smoker isn't someone’s sole occupation. Cigarette smokers are parents, employees, and everything in between. Whether you are a parent or not, the children you expose to tobacco smoke experience side effects. That involuntary exposure puts a damper on many parts of a kids life.

Kids are in constant development, lungs included. All the toxins in passive smoke are too much for a little set of lungs.

So what happens developmentally to children without a smoke free environment?

Kids breathing secondhand smoke can lead to developmental asthma, severe asthma attacks, breathing problems, respiratory infections, and ear infections.

In severe cases, childhood lung cancer can develop. Respiratory related issues hinder children and their ability to do simple things like run and play with friends. Considering that’s about 50% of a kids life, that’s a pretty big problem.

Encouraging future tobacco use

Even worse, witnessing tobacco use at a young age increases the chances of that kid smoking as an adult. They see it as a normal part of life, no different than watching their parents cook or read the news. Without the help of additional education, some may never even know how deadly the habit is.

Infants and passive smoking

When it comes to newborns, secondhand smoke exposure increases the risk of SIDS. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the unexpected death of an infant due to a pause in regulated breathing.

An infant's lungs and immune system can’t handle harmful chemicals like nicotine. Infants exposed to tobacco smoke have high concentrations of nicotine in their lungs and raised cotinine levels. The presence of these two chemicals is what causes issues regulating breathing and thus, SIDS.

So, smoking around an infant - even infrequently - can be lethal.

All things considered, it’s unfair for unborn babies, newborns, and children to absorb these risks because of the choices of adults around them.

You have the facts, now what?

Has this made you want to ditch the cigarettes? Hopefully you’re itching to make a change in your smoking habit and enjoy the benefits of quitting. And rightly so.

Your enjoyment of cigarettes just doesn’t outweigh all the risks they pose to other people—and to yourself!

The age restrictions that apply to cigarettes don’t apply to secondhand smoke, so even the youngest people are at risk.

Every inhale pushes someone to nasty implications they didn’t sign up for.

Good news is, you aren't powerless. Nip the shortened lifespans and wasted money in the bud. Quit smoking and switch to a tobacco replacement method like vaping.

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