We typically think of cigarette smoke (and smokers) as being divided into two categories: “mainstream smoke” (i.e. the person who’s directly smoking a cigarette) and “secondhand” (or “sidestream” smoke/”passive smoking” – i.e. the people who inhale what smokers exhale).
As you can imagine, each manner of smoking involves different risks, given the different kinds of toxic substances that can be found in each variety of smoke. Each has a common thread: that when a smoker has a cigarette, the smoke is not only affecting their body, but that of loved ones and others around them. Here we will discuss more about the influence of secondhand smoke and ways to consider minimizing its effect on others.
What is in tobacco smoke and how does it affect smokers?
Smoke that a smoker directly inhales through a cigarette – “mainstream smoke” – contains a number of harmful substances such as nicotine and tar. While to an extent cigarette filters are designed to help trap some of the tar and particulates in smoke, they do not necessarily reduce many of the carcinogens in smoke as smokers inhale.
With the exception of a few select brands, most common cigarette brands contain not just tobacco, but a variety of other ingredients, including preservatives, humectants, flavors and other additives aimed at increasing a cigarette’s appeal to customers. When these are burned, an additional 4,000+ substances are created, at least 40 of which are known carcinogens. As tar and other chemicals coat the lungs over years, the risk of a smoker developing lung cancer and other bronchial illnesses jumps.
More about sidestream smoke
A smoker exhales smoke into the environment around them. Smoke rises from the tip of their lit cigarette, swirling into the same space. This is where sidestream smoke – “passive smoking” – begins. Sidestream smoke tends to be more alkaline than smoke that passes through a filter, and as a result the concentration of toxins tends to be higher than in mainstream smoke. Concentrations of nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide, the three major harmful substances in cigarettes, are more than double that of mainstream smoke, respectively, while the concentration of ammonia is several dozen times higher in sidestream smoke.
Just being in the vicinity of a smoker means that passive smokers are inhaling as much harmful smoke as that directly inhaled by the smoker. Moreover, this effect can be further concentrated when others are together with a smoker in a confined space, such as a vehicle.
Effects of second-hand smoke
There are numerous cases where non-smokers got lung cancer due to passive smoking. In some countries where regulations still allow people to smoke indoors, like in restaurants, staff are exposed daily to larger amounts of smoke as they work. For families with a smoker indoors, this is a similar story.
Even if you are not smoking yourself, if your family member, partner, or coworker is a smoker, your risk of getting cancer will be several times higher. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General estimates that nonsmokers who live with a smoker may have a 20 to 30 percent higher chance of developing lung cancer. For children living in a smoker household, chances of their developing wheeze and asthma jump by at least 20%. It is important for smokers to understand the influence of second-hand smoke so that they do not become perpetrators while they do not know.
Both mainstream smoke and sidestream smoke contain harmful substances, but sidestream smoke that is entirely unfiltered has a higher risk of affecting the body, and smokers should give consideration to others around them. Also, even if you are not smoking yourself, if you have a smoker around you, such as a family member or a roommate, you should consider what effect their habit is having on your health. And also keep in mind that pets are affected by secondhand smoke too. It is important to have an eye on improving the air environment around you.
As long as there are cigarettes, passive smoking will not go away. However, you can reduce your risks by being aware of secondhand smoke and discussing things with the smoker in your life.