Coinciding with today being World No Tobacco Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging all countries to bring in a 100 per cent ban on smoking in indoor public places and workplaces and has released its new policy recommendations on protection from exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke.

“The evidence is clear, there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke,” said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan in a prepared statement earlier this week.

“Many countries have already taken action. I urge all countries that have not yet done so to take this immediate and important step to protect the health of all by passing laws requiring all indoor workplaces and public places to be 100 per cent smoke-free,” she added.

Tobacco smoke contains 4,000 known chemicals, with more than 50 of them known to cause cancer, said the WHO.

More than 5 million deaths a year are caused by tobacco, making it the leading preventable cause of death in the world. The developing world is seeing the fastest growth in tobacco use, and half of tobacco-related deaths occur there. If this growth continues, 80 per cent of tobacco-related deaths will be in the developing world.

Also, exposure to second hand smoke causes heart disease and premature death in adults due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Workplace exposure to tobacco smoke is estimated to kill 200,000 workers a year, and the WHO estimates that 700 million children, that is half the world’s minors, breathe in tobacco smoke, mostly at home.

In the six years between 1999 and 2005, the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the Global Youth Tobacco Survey where youngsters aged 13 to 15 in 132 countries were interviewed about their exposure and attitude to tobacco smoke. More than three quarters of the youngsters favoured a ban on smoking in public places.

The survey also showed that 44 per cent of the young interviewees breathed in tobacco smoke at home while 56 per cent of them were exposed to it in public places.

The WHO is not alone in highlighting the dangers to children from second hand smoke. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), breathing in second hand smoke harms children by causing “asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), bronchitis and pneumonia and ear infections”.

The EPA suggests that American children’s exposure to second hand smoke is responsible for:

  • An increase in the number of asthma attacks and severity of symptoms in 200,000 to 1 million children with asthma.
  • Between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections (for children under 18 months), and
  • Respiratory tract infections that result in 7,500 to 15,000 hospital admissions every year.

They point out that young children’s lungs are particularly susceptible to second hand smoke because they are still developing, breathe more rapidly than adults and they don’t control their environment. Children exposed to high levels of second hand smoke, and this is particularly the case if their mothers smoke, are more likely to have poor health.

The WHO’s new policy recommendations draw on the conclusions of three new major reports:

  • Monograph 83 Tobacco Smoke and Involuntary Smoking by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC),
  • The United States Surgeon General’s Report on The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, and
  • The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposed Identification of Environmental Tobacco Smoke as a Toxic Air Contaminant.

The WHO are also keen to highlight the cost that smoking incurs on people, businesses and society, not just as a result of disease. This includes loss of productivity and material costs to enterprises that have to renovate and clean workplaces, pay higher insurance premiums, and run an increased risk of fire.

The end of next month, on 30th June in Bangkok, sees the start of the Second Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, where participating countries will discuss the practicalities of protection against exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke.

Acting Director of the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative, Dr Douglas Bettcher, speaking about the Second Conference of the Parties, said that:

“This topic should matter to everyone, because everyone benefits from smoke-free places.”

“With this year’s theme, we hope that everyone, especially policy makers and employers, will be inspired to claim, create and enjoy spaces that are 100 per cent free from tobacco smoke. By doing so, we keep the bodies inside those spaces smoke-free too, and greatly increase our effectiveness in preventing serious diseases and saving lives in future generations,” he added.

World No Tobacco Day is celebrated all over the world in different ways, with marches, workshops to help people stop smoking, educational meetings, and various campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of second hand smoke.

Last year, Michael R Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, announced his intention to donate 125 million dollars over the next two years toward ending the global tobacco epidemic. The money will be awarded in the form of grants, and applications are sought from the 15 high burden countries in particular: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, the Russian Federation, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam.

Click here to read more about the Health Effects of Exposure to Secondhand Smoke (EPA).

Click here to download the WHO’s Policy recommendations on protection from exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke (PDF reader required).

Click here to go to the Institute for Global Tobacco Control (Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health).

Written by: Catharine Paddock
Writer: Medical News Today