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Secondhand Smoke Causes Both Immediate and Long Term Health Effects


A pair of studies and a report from the Surgeon General highlights the detrimental effects, both immediate and long-term, of secondhand smoke exposure in both adults and children. Breathing in tobacco smoke can lead to a higher risk of hyperactivity disorder, increase the risk of both meningococcal and pneumococcal disease, and can trigger physical chances that lead to cancer, heart attacks and the reproductive systems of both men and women.

Environmental Tobacco Smoke Exposure Affects Both Children and Adults

The first study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine by Mark Hamer PhD from University College London, gathered data on the physical and mental health of 901 children between the ages of 4 to 8 years from a sample of participants in the 2003 Scottish Health Survey. Their saliva was tested for cotinine, a byproduct of tobacco smoke, to gauge their levels of exposure. They were also asked to report on how frequently they were exposed to secondhand smoke. Most of the exposure occurred in the child’s home.

The parents of the children were also asked to complete a questionnaire called “Strengths and Difficulties” which assessed psychological distress, emotional, behavioral and/or social problems the children were having.

* Secondhand Smoke Harms Toddlers and Children

Hamer’s team found that children who have the highest level of environmental tobacco smoke inhalation have a 44% higher risk of hyperactivity, “conduct disorder” (bad behavior), and other mental health problems over those who breathed in the least. The study authors also found an association between secondhand smoke and more psychological distress.

While the authors are not sure of the exact pathway, they theorize that chemicals in the tobacco smoke may influence brain chemicals such as dopamine, which controls movement, emotional response, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.

Read: Secondhand Smoke Kills 600,000 People Annually

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A second study, lead by Chien-Chang Lee of the Harvard School of Public Health and published in PLoS Medicine, used an analysis of 42 previous studies, mostly conducted in high-income countries with good vaccination policies. The researchers found that exposure to secondhand smoke also doubles the risk for invasive meningococcal disease and may increase the chance of developing invasive pneumococcal disease and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib). The risk was especially strong for the children 6 years old and younger.

Invasive meningococcal disease is a severe bacterial infection that is relatively rare. Infants, teenagers, and people over the age of 60 are most likely to become infected. The bacteria is spread through close contact and is treated with antibiotics. A vaccine is available to protect from the most common strains of the disease.

Invasive Pneumococcal Disease is a leading cause of serious illness in children and adults and causes 175,000 hospitalizations each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), invasive pneumococcal disease causes more than 6,000 deaths annually. Penicillin is the usual medical treatment and there are also two vaccines available for prevention.

Haemophilus influenzae type B can result in pneumonia, occult febrile bacteremia, meningitis, and other infections. Between 3 to 6% of cases are fatal, primarily in countries that have underimmunized children. The Hib vaccine is typically administered to US children between the ages of 12 and 15 months.

In the United States, two of every three children between the ages of 3 and 11 are exposed to secondhand smoke.

Read: Behavior Problems Linked to Nicotine Exposure During Pregnancy

Adults are not immune to the deleterious effects of secondhand smoke. The US Surgeon General has released a report entitled “How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease” which finds that the cellular damage and tissue inflammation from tobacco smoke are immediate, and that repeated exposure weakens the body’s ability to heal the damage.

Exposure to tobacco smoke, even that from occasional smoking or passive secondhand smoke, can result in cardiovascular disease and can trigger cardiac events such as heart attack, stroke, and aortic aneurysm.

Smoking and tobacco smoke exposure can also make it harder for diabetics to control their blood sugar and can lead to reproductive problems, particularly in women. These include miscarriage, preterm delivery, low birth weight, damage to fetal lungs and brain tissue, and babies who are more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome.