Passive Smoking and Lung Cancer

By Medically reviewed by Panel Perubatan Hello Doktor

Cancer of the lung, bronchus and trachea is the second most common cancer among males and fifth among females in Malaysia. Since most cases are detected at a later stage (stage III and stage IV), lung cancer is the most fatal cancer worldwide, claiming more than 1.8 million lives in 2018, the most compared to other cancers. 

Cigarettes, Passive Smoking and Lung Cancer

Cigarette smokers make up the overwhelming majority of those diagnosed with lung cancer. This is no surprise since tobacco contains 7000 chemicals of which around 70 chemicals are known for causing cancer (carcinogenic substances). However, there is also a population group known as passive smokers or secondhand smokers, who do not actually smoke cigarettes but are exposed to the harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke because they are around active smokers. 

Passive smokers are usually spouses, family members or living under the same roof with someone who is an active smoker. It has been found that people who had never smoked but lived with a smoker were at a 26% increased risk of lung cancer compared with those who did not live with a smoker. Additionally, by-products of cigarette smoking, including tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) such as 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK) – the main cause of adenocarcinoma – have been detected in the urine of non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke, further strengthening the link between passive smoking and lung cancer.

Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, 2.5 million adults who were nonsmokers have died from passive smoking. Moreover, there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke, even a brief period of passive smoking can damage cells in ways that can set the cancer process in motion.

Passive smoking does not only increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer but also the risk of developing other health conditions as well as exacerbation of pre-existing health problems. Infants and children who are passive smokers are at risk of more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). For adult passive smokers, exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on blood and blood vessels, increasing the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

What can you do to protect yourself and your children from secondhand smoke? 

The best thing you can do to protect your family from secondhand smoke is to quit smoking altogether. This eliminates the potential exposure of passive smokers towards tobacco smoke and its residue in the house, car and clothes. In Malaysia, hundreds of mQuit clinics have been set up in the country to provide adequate and effective help for smokers to quit. Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) with nicotine patches or gums can also help you get over cravings. Other steps that you can take in the meantime includes:

  1. Making sure that your house and car remain smoke-free. Passive smokers breathe in secondhand smoke at home more than any other place.
  2. Ensure that caretakers like nannies, babysitters, and day care staff do not smoke around you and your family. 
  3. Eat at smoke-free restaurants and dining places. Avoid indoor public places that allow smoking.
  4. Teach your children to stay away from secondhand smoke or cover their mouth and nose when walking through a group of smokers. Better yet, notify smokers who are smoking near you that you are not comfortable with tobacco smoke. 

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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