What is Passive Smoking?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2018
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Passive smoking refers to the smoke that non-smokers are breathing in from active smokers. People who spend time around smokers are breathing in the smoke either from the burning end of the active smoker's cigarette or the smoke expelled by the active smoker. This is also called involuntary or secondhand smoking.

Exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to very serious health problems, such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, and lung cancer. Cigarette smoke has more than 400 chemicals in it, and it creates air pollution. Passive smoking is considered a preventable cause of death that has killed thousands of people exposed to cigarette smoke in homes, workplaces, and/or public places.

Children are often passive smokers and receive health injuries that they would not have had if their parents did not smoke. Even a small amount of secondhand smoke can affect babies, children, and others. Even when smokers who smoke in the home try to do so near an open window, some smoke still remains and affects other people in the house. People who were exposed to secondhand smoke as children have an increased risk of getting cancer later in life, as well as asthma and respiratory infections.


Smoke from cigarettes is unhealthy for everyone, and while active smokers choose to smoke, passive smokers do not. Exposure to smoke is especially bad for those with asthma, but it is unhealthy for all people as well as animals. People who are exposed often get headaches, sore throats, and eye irritation. Dizziness, coughing, and nausea may also occur.

Mainstream smoke refers to the smoke that enters the smoker's body and is not exhaled. The smoke that is exhaled differs chemically, since it interacts with the tissues in the smoker's body. Mainstream passive smoking occurs when the non-smoker breathes in smoke exhaled by the smoker. This type of smoke is harmful, but sidestream passive smoking has been shown to be even more harmful.

Sidestream passive smoking refers to the non-smoker breathing in smoke from the burning end of the smoker's cigarette. Most of the smoke in a room will be of this type, which has a higher concentration of chemicals than that which is exhaled. Cigarette smoke contains chemicals such as carbon monoxide, benzene, and ammonia and many of the chemicals in cigarettes are either irritants or carcinogens.


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Post 13

I am trapped in the home of a heavy smoker. He chooses to smoke two or three packets a day. Until I can change my job, I have to be exposed that smoke for some of my home life. I find it unbelievable but true that the human body can take so much punishment from organic poisons to the extent that he can smoke every 10 minutes through the day and night and not even realize it, whereas I start to suffer after about two cigarettes are smoked, even if they are smoked in another room.

But it is affecting him. He can't reach the shop at the end of the road without reaching for his puffer as he has

angina, so he asks me to buy the cigarettes for him that he will poison my life with later. He looks awful, unhealthy and pallid, with a face that falls into his ashtray each night. He smokes in his bedroom, he drops cigarettes on the floor in the lounge and his room. There are many burn marks.

I am not to worry, he says, because "they always go out.” His intelligent mind is altered by his cravings so that he lives dangerously risking fire, heart attack, cancer etc., yet he tells me that he doesn't like smoking! It is so much a part of his life that he cannot stop it. I have witnessed him lighting cigarettes in his sleep at the kitchen table then dropping them into the tiled floor.

I am very much affected by this. I seal my room at night with sellotape over the cracks in the door. If I run out of tape, I use shaving foam and wet socks under the door -- anything to stop the smoke coming in while I sleep. I use industrial breathing apparatus to descend through the "Death Zone" in the landing every morning to reach the bathroom.

But at other times -- like now -- I am feeling the effects, like tension in the temples, tightness in the chest, that I am being poisoned. I take aspirin and long for the beautiful fresh air of the high road outside every morning.

And I live with the concern that this overweight, unhealthy chain smoker will keel over and die suddenly as he often looks like doing. I wonder how the management of Rothmans who are slowly killing him can look at themselves in the mirror each day. They are causing so much damage and hurt.

I am going to have to stop because the poison is too much now and I am upstairs, the smoker is downstairs. I am feeling really ill now! This is passive smoking and it is very, very wrong and completely evil!

Post 12

@KaBoom - A lot of people suffer health problems because of passive smoking. One of my great aunts passed away from lung cancer, and she never smoked a day in her life. She worked around people who were smoke though, just like your grandmother.

Post 11

I feel really bad for people who are forced to be passive smokers, especially people who work in bars and restaurants. If you work in a bar 5 nights a week, you're probably exposed to a ton of passive smoke which could lead to health problems later on.

My grandmother worked in an office that allowed smoking when she was younger, and she now has emphysema, despite the fact that she never smoked a day in her life.

Post 10

@SZapper - I don't see smoking being outlawed anytime soon, but we do have a lot more regulations about smoking now than we did. You can't smoke in most buildings, and in some states you can't smoke in bars and restaurants anymore. I think those are small victories, with maybe more to come.

Post 9

@cafe41 - I think smoking should be illegal too. As you said, it's bad for smokers and passive smokers alike, and now we know exactly how bad it is. I know people crow on and on about their rights or whatever, but I don't think smoking cigarettes should be a right.

We outlaw plenty of other things that are bad for people, such as energy drinks with too much caffeine and hard drugs. I don't think it would be that much of a stretch to just get rid of cigarettes too. But as you said, the tobacco lobby in the US is very powerful.

Post 8
I remember watching a short story that was trying to create awareness about passive smoking. A man was smoking in the train station and the person sitting next to him was eating his meal. Suddenly, he took the food and stuffed it down the throat of the guy who was smoking. When the smoker asked him what he was doing, the other man said, "Now you know how I feel about your smoking."
Post 7

@anon140983-- I wouldn't say that a passive smoker is at a greater risk, a passive and active smoker are at equal risk in my view.

Smoking is not something that harms the body less the more it is exposed to it. The chemicals in cigarettes cause cells in the lungs to die. So the longer someone smokes, the more damage there will be.

An active and passive smoker are essentially inhaling the same thing. So the damage to both of their lungs will be similar or same. The only difference is that an active smoker might be exposed to more chemicals over the long term.

A passive smoking fact, there are millions of people in the world who die of lung cancer without having smoked a single cigarette. But there are even more who die because of active smoking.

Post 6

I get so frustrated when people smoke in public places and make everyone else passive smokers. If someone chooses to harm their health by smoking, it's their decision. But no one has the right to affect my health like that.

Post 5

@Cafe41 - I agree with you but they say that smoking cessation is really difficult, especially among women. I think that we should offer government grants to companies that could design a drug that can slowly wean the smoker off of the drug.

I know that there are some are the market now, but this should be a huge push to get smokers to quit for good. They say that some of the damage can be reversed once a smoker quits smoking.

I know that if we knew then what we know now about smoking, cigarettes would have never been approved for sale in the United States.

I think that we should educate teenagers about the dangers of smoking by covering a federal educational program that shows the effects of smoking over time. I wonder if teens saw what smoking actually did to them physically, I wonder how many would choose to continue to smoke.

Post 4

@Moldova- Wow those passive smoking statistics are pretty grim. I really don’t know how a product that we know kills people and leads to other destructive health conditions could ever be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

I realize when the cigarettes first came out on the market many people were not aware of the long range results, but we are aware now. What is really sad is when television shows or movies portray smoking to be a cool act and teenagers watch this and want to emulate what they see on screen.

This is how kids turn into lifelong smokers because they start smoking at such a young age and become addicted fast. I know that there is a strong tobacco lobby in this country but we should still try to ban cigarette smoking because we know that it kills. The facts about smoking are too big to ignore.

Post 3

@Latte31 - I know what you mean. You always hear about cases of people developing lung cancer yet they never smoked and wondered how they got it.

I was reading that there are about 50,000 passive smoking deaths every year and that passive cigarette smoking can increase the potential for heart disease by 50%. It also causes more cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in children as well as increasing the breast cancer rate by 70% among women that are premenopausal.

I also read that effects of passive smoking can really limit your sense of smell and in some cases it can do away with it altogether. I have a friend that has this problem due to second hand smoke because her both her parents smoked when she was a child.

She puts on so much perfume but because she can’t smell it, she does not realize that she over did it.

Post 2

Anon140983 - I think that both people will be damaged but even if the active smoker is used to the smoking effects it does not make it any less dangerous. Over time the smoker will have more damage than the nonsmoker.

I wanted to add that second hand smoke is really dangerous to those that inhale these toxic fumes. My husband’s grandfather was a heavy smoker and my mother in law, a nonsmoker developed asthma as a result of the years that her father smoked in a car with the windows rolled up.

The effects of passive smoking are very real which is why I don’t understand how people can smoke around children. Everyone now knows that smoking leads to cancer so why would you subject children to something like this?

Post 1

is a passive smoker at greater risk than an active smoker? an active frequent smoker must be used to those chemicals, right? let's say a volume of carbon monoxide goes into an active smoker's body, and the same volume of carbon monoxide goes into a passive smoker's body. who will be damaged more?

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