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Passive smoking

passive; smoke; smoking; cigarettes; pregnancy; ASH; quit; quitting;


Whenever people smoke, all the others around them are smoking too because they breathe in the same harmful substances as the person who is smoking. When children or adults breathe in other people's smoke (second-hand smoke), it is commonly known as passive smoking.

Tiny smoke particles mix with the surrounding air and can get right down into the lungs. We know now that this can be harmful to health, especially in children.

Dangerous substances in cigarette smoke

Scientific studies have shown that passive smoke contains many dangerous chemicals. There are many different chemicals in tobacco smoke that may be breathed in by someone who is near a smoker. They also stick to clothes, furniture, walls and inside the car. Some of these chemicals are:

dangerous substances in cigarette smoke
  • Tar - made up of many chemicals including cancer causing substances (carcinogens).
  • Carbon monoxide - that lowers the amount of oxygen your blood can carry.
  • Poisons - including arsenic, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide.
Graphic courtesy of Smoke Free Homes and Cars Project
Tobacco Control Unit, SA Department of Health

Unless smokers are very careful about where they smoke, others near them may breathe in these chemicals too, increasing their risk of illness.

What passive smoking does

As well as irritating the eyes and airways, passive smoking increases the risk of illnesses such as:

  • pneumonia
  • bronchitis
  • coughing and wheezing
  • middle ear infections
  • more serious asthma attacks (and it increases the number of children with asthma).

Passive smoking also increases the risk of developing heart disease and cancer.

  • In some children, it may also be a contributing factor in learning and language difficulties and behavioural problems.
  • It has been shown that young children exposed to passive smoking have more dental decay than other children.
  • Recent research has also shown that passive smokers are more likely to develop diabetes than people who are not exposed to smoking.
    cigarettes smoking in an ashtray
    Graphic courtesy of Smoke Free Homes and Cars Project
    Tobacco Control Unit, SA Department of Health

Smoking in pregnancy and near babies

  • The baby is likely to be smaller at birth.
  • The mother is more likely to have a miscarriage.
  • There may be more chance of the baby being stillborn.
  • Women whose partners smoke have a higher risk of the baby not growing well in the womb.
  • Smoking during pregnancy and after the birth of a baby increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Smoking injuries

Apart from the dangers of passive smoking there are other risks to people who are around people who smoke.

  • Poisoning: cigarettes and cigarette ash are poisonous and eating even one butt can make a young child sick. Keep cigarettes and ashtrays away from children.
  • Burns: cigarettes can seriously burn children.
  • Matches and lighters: these can cause burns and can (and do) start house fires and other fires. Keep them away from children.
  • Motor vehicle accidents: smoking while driving increases the likelihood of having an accident.

Protecting yourself from passive smoking

In recent years, the dangers of passive smoking have become more widely known. Because of this workplaces and many public spaces have gone smoke-free. So now more and more people are able to live, travel, work and play in smoke-free environments.

A recent survey has shown that many people are protecting their children from passive smoking by having smoke-free homes and cars. More than half of the households in South Australia with a parent who smokes have taken this step already.

What you can do

It 's easy to protect yourself from passive smoking...

  • make your home and car smoke-free.
    smokefree home   smokefree car
    Graphic courtesy of Smoke Free Homes and Cars Project
    Tobacco Control Unit, SA Department of Health

If you are a smoker, you could also decide to...

  • only ever smoke outside
  • never smoke around children and other people.

If this is not possible, then...

  • never smoke in the car when others are with you. From June 1, 2007, it became illegal in South Australia to smoke in a car with children present. 
  • limit your smoking at home to one room, where children and other people don't go
  • if you smoke outside when they are around, avoid smoke drifting in their direction.

Every step you take to protect others from passive smoke will help improve their health.

When you have visitors?

When you have decided that you and your family are going to go smoke-free, you will need to let your visitors know too. Sometimes it can be difficult to ask a guest not to smoke. The easiest way to make your visitors aware is to put up stickers in your home and car - even amusing ones can make your point. Pointing out the stickers gives you a chance to let people know that things have changed.

You might want to put stickers...

  • next to the main entrance to the house
  • on the dashboard of the car
  • anywhere inside where visitors might usually smoke.

What if visitors still wish to smoke?

Sometimes it might be hard for people close to you to change their smoking habits when they visit. This might include family members, close friends or neighbours. They might feel that the occasional cigarette does little harm and so it's 'OK' to smoke in your home or car. But every cigarette causes damage. No one should smoke around others, especially around children. Tell them why you have gone smoke-free and show them this information. It may help them understand your decision.

Stopping smoking

There is a topic Smoking - giving up smoking which has information about stopping smoking, and about the help that you can get.

New smoke-free law in South Australia

Changes to the Tobacco Products Regulation Act 1997 mean that from 31 May 2012

  • Smoking is banned within 10 metres of children's public playground equipment.
  • Smoking is banned under covered public transport waiting areas, including bus, tram, train and taxi shelters and other areas used to board or alight from public transport that are covered by a roof.
  • Local councils and other incorporated bodies can apply to have an outdoor area or event declared smoke-free.
  • The age that a person can be fined for smoking-related offences has been reduced to 15 years.

For more information about the purpose of this law, who will enforce it and what the fines will be, have a look at this information from the Deaprtment of Health, South Australia:


South Australia


World Health Organisation

Information in languages other than English

NSW Health


American Academy of Pediatrics - multiple papers on passive smoking

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA)

  • 'Smoking and tobacco use'  
  • 'The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General' June 2006
  • How tobacco smoke causes disease: Report of the Surgeon General  2010

    National Tobacco Campaign (Australia) Quitnow website

    Oxygen - information for young people about smoking

    World Health Organisation Tobacco Free Initiative

    Aligne et al. 'Association of Pediatric Dental Caries with Passive Smoking'. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 2003, 289: 1258-1264.

    Burke H, Leonardi-Bee J et al 'Prenatal and passive smoke exposure and incidence of asthma and wheeze: systematic review and meta-analysis' Pediatrics 19-03-2012

    Houston TK et al ' Active and passive smoking and development of glucose intolerance among young adults in a prospective cohort: CARDIA study' British Medical Journal, Apr 2006; doi:10.1136/bmj.38779.584028.55

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    The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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