Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 4 - February 2011
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WHO study finds passive smoking kills 600,000 worldwide

The first ever global study into the effects of second-hand smoke (SHS) found that it is the root cause of over 600,000 deaths per year worldwide. Some 165,000 or more than a quarter of those deaths are children who are often exposed to what is commonly referred to as ‘passive smoking’ at home.

“Smokers are putting not only themselves at risk, but also 1.8 billion non-smokers,” wrote the World Health Organization (WHO) in a November press release. “In 2004, 40% of children, 33% of male non-smokers and 35% of female non-smokers were exposed to SHS worldwide.”

The WHO research team, led by Annette Pruss-Ustun in Geneva, found that in the 192 countries examined, SHS is particularly dangerous for children, who are believed to be at higher risk of sudden death syndrome, pneumonia and lung cancer.

The study used estimates of the instances of certain diseases and the number of people exposed to SHS in a particular region. It examined the effects of passive smoking on both deaths and years lost of life in good health to determine that SHS exposure led to 379,000 deaths from ischemic heart disease; 165,000 deaths from lower respiratory infections; 36,900 deaths from asthma; and 21,400 deaths from lung cancer. In order to gather comprehensive data from all the countries observed, researchers looked at statistics dating as far back as 2004.

“Passive smoking is a global health issue,” remarked the study’s co-author Alistair Woodward, professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Billions of people are still exposed, needlessly, to second-hand smoke. This paper puts a figure on the cost, globally, of premature deaths and loss of good health. We hope our findings will spur policy makers to take action. We know what works in tobacco control — what is needed is leadership and political commitment.”

The authors also found that women and children are disproportionately affected by exposure to SHS. Of the 603,000 deaths, 47% occurred in women, 28% in children and 26% in men. Women suffer more from the impact of SHS as they are 50% more likely to be non-smokers than men.  Children are by far the most affected by SHS in terms of lost years of life as most of these deaths occur from respiratory infections during their first few years.

The highest exposure to SHS was found in Eastern Europe, the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, with more than 50% of some population groups exposed. About 60% of all child deaths occurred in Africa and Southeast Asia combined.

Urgent action needed

Only 7.4% of the world lives in jurisdictions with comprehensive smoke-free laws at present. As such, the study’s authors urge countries to enforce the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty under the guidance of the United Nations and adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2003, which entered into force in 2005.

“Policy makers should bear in mind that enforcing complete smoke-free laws will probably substantially reduce the number of deaths attributable to exposure to SHS within the first year of its implementation, with accompanying reduction in costs of illness in social and health systems,” the authors wrote.

Pruss-Ustun and colleagues made three key recommendations in their study published in the medical journal The Lancet. The first was immediate enforcement of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to create complete smoke-free environments in all indoor workplaces, public places and public transport. The second was the inclusion of complementary educational strategies, such as voluntary smoke-free home policies, for countries that already have smoke-free laws. The third is the need to dispel the myth that developing countries can wait to deal with tobacco-related diseases until after they have dealt with infectious diseases. Together, tobacco smoke and infections lead to substantial, avoidable mortality and loss of years of active life. 

by Joe Strizzi


What is SHS?

According to Health Canada, breathing in second-hand smoke causes at least 800 deaths from lung cancer and heart disease every year in Canadian non-smokers. The best way to protect your family from the health effects of second-hand smoke is to make your home and car 100% smoke-free. In 2008, Nova Scotia was the first province in Canada to ban smoking in vehicles carrying children, with other provinces and municipalities following suit.

Second-hand smoke is what smokers exhale and what rises from an idle burning cigarette, cigar or pipe. When you see second-hand smoke in the air, what may not be so obvious is that there are 4,000 chemicals in the smoke, and more than 60 of these chemicals are carcinogens. The chemicals also contribute directly to other diseases, such as asthma, heart disease and emphysema.

When someone smokes in your home, second-hand smoke spreads from one room to another, even if the door to the smoking area is closed. In addition, the potentially toxic chemicals in second-hand smoke can cling to rugs, curtains, clothes, food and other materials, and often remain in a room or car long after the smoker has been there.

You may think you can clear the smoke from a room or your car by opening a window or turning on a fan, but this is not the case. Studies have shown there is no level of ventilation that will eliminate the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. Even air filters (air purifiers) are not enough. Second-hand smoke is composed of both particles and gases. Most air filters are designed to remove fine smoke particles from the air, but they do not remove the gases that can cause diseases.