Laws that ban smoking in public places immediately lower heart attack risk and the benefits grow over time, according to an analysis published in the October 6 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. These changes are most likely to benefit women and children, who bear most of the burden of secondhand smoke.
Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke
Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death, yet more than 20 million American women still smoke. In addition to putting you at risk for lung cancer, smoking contributes to the development of coronary artery disease and heart attack. Over the past decade, awareness has grown that smokers are not the only ones affected: secondhand smoke raises the risk of heart attack in nonsmokers by 30%.
Just like smoking, secondhand smoke (from a smoldering cigarette or exhaled by a smoker) damages your lungs and arteries over time. However, even brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes your blood to become stickier and damages the lining of your blood vessels, potentially triggering a heart attack. The California Environmental Protection Agency estimates that secondhand smoke causes 46,000 heart disease deaths every year.
Evidence of the dangers of secondhand smoke has led to the passing of many laws making public areas and workplaces completely smoke-free. How effective are these laws at protecting nonsmokers?
Effect of Smoking Laws
A study conducted by researchers at the University of California School of Medicine reviewed the existing research on heart attack rates before and after smoke-free laws went into effect. When results from all studies were combined, they found that smoke-free laws reduced the heart attack rate by 15% in the first year. The longer the ban had been in place, the greater the benefit: after 3 years, heart attack rates were lowered by 36%. Since most smoking bans were enacted recently, no data was available beyond 3 years.
Previous studies have measured the effects of smoking bans on heart attacks, but heart attack reductions varied from study to study. This was the first to include all available studies and take into account the length of time the smoking ban had been in place. Overall, the researchers found that smoking bans consistently lower heart attack rates about as much as secondhand smoke exposure increases them.
What You Can Do
It is crucial that you take steps to protect yourself and your children from the effects of secondhand smoke. Much of the burden of secondhand smoke falls on women, who are less likely than men to smoke and more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke from their husband or partner. Children are also at risk because they breathe more quickly and take in more air, causing them to absorb higher doses of toxic chemicals from smoky air than adults do. Avoiding secondhand smoke is especially important if you or your children have lung conditions, or if you have heart disease or are pregnant.
The only way to avoid the dangers of secondhand smoke is a 100% smoke free environment. Opening a window, sitting in a separate area, or using ventilation cannot prevent exposure to cigarette smoke.
Some ways you can protect yourself and your family from secondhand smoke:
- If you smoke, quit. Resources are available to help you or a loved one quit smoking and protect the health of everyone around you.
- Make your home and car smoke-free
- Ask people not to smoke around you or your children
- Teach your children to avoid secondhand smoke
- Choose restaurants and other businesses that are smoke-free
- Support more and stronger public area and workplace smoking restriction laws
Lightwood JM, Glantz SA. Declines in Acute Myocardial Infarction After Smoke-Free Laws and Individual Risk Attributable to Secondhand Smoke. Circulation. 2009;120:1373-9.
US Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coordinating Center for Health Promotion, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2006.