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Passive smoking

Passive smoking

Passive smoking, also known as second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke, is when a person breathes in toxic fumes that have remained in the air or surrounding objects after a cigarette has been smoked. It also refers to exposure of unborn babies to their mother’s smoke.  

  • What is it?

    There are three types of passive smoke;

    • Mainstream smoke: breathed in and breathed out by a smoker
    • Side-stream smoke: floating off the end of a lit cigarette
    • Third-hand smoke: smoke that has been absorbed into clothing or furniture 
  • Harmful Effects

    Passive smoke is classed as cancer-causing by the World Health Organization and there are no safe levels of exposure. Passive smoking can cause premature death, disease and disability in adults and children.

    In adults: passive smoking is known to cause lung cancer, coughing, wheezing and other illnesses such as coronary heart disease.

    In children: passive smoking can increase the severity of asthma symptoms and lead to new asthma cases. It can also cause coughing and wheezing and other illnesses such as middle-ear problems.

    There are over 4,000 chemicals generated during the burning and smoking of tobacco products. Of these, over 250 chemicals are known to be toxic or cancer-causing. 

    The dangers of second-hand smoke exposure

    Reproduced from the US Surgeon General’s report “How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease"






  • Burden

    • There is no safe level of passive smoke
    • In 2002, almost 80,000 deaths in adults were due to passive smoking in the EU
    • Over 20,000 cases of lung infections in the UK are attributable to passive smoking
    • Passive smoking causes over 120,000 cases of middle-ear disease in the UK each year
    • Over 22,000 new cases of wheeze in the UK are linked with passive smoking each year
    • Over 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year in non-smokers in the USA are linked to passive smoking
  • Current and Future Needs

    The World Health Organisation and European Commission have declared that everyone has the right to be protected from second-hand smoke.

    The best way to prevent exposure is the introduction of new laws ensuring smoke-free environments. Research has shown that smoke-free legislation leads to reduced lung symptoms, improved lung function tests and a reduction in heart attacks.

    Many countries have introduced a ban on smoking in public places and some countries are considering legislation to protect children in private motor cars or playgrounds.

    Unborn children can also be affected by mothers who smoke. Therefore, smoking cessation services should target and be made available to pregnant women.

    Other areas for action include: 

    • Member States need to fully implement the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – including measures regarding taxation, advertising and packaging
    • All public places across the EU should be smoke-free areas – including parks and playgrounds
    • To protect children – further measures may be needed – for example a ban on smoking in cars