Most smokers are aware of the major health effects caused by smoking, such as developing a range of cancers, heart disease, stroke and emphysema to name some examples…

What they may not be aware however, is how their smoking can also affect other people, and in particular babies and children.

What is secondhand smoking?

Secondhand smoking is the smoke that is exhaled from the smoker, as well as the smoke that drifts from the burning end of a cigarette. It is commonly referred to as passive smoking.

Although secondhand smoke is reduced by being mixed with the air, there is no safe level of exposure. Secondhand smoke contains at least 250 chemicals that are known to be toxic, with more than 50 of these chemicals known to cause cancer.

The evidence of the effects of secondhand smoking are well established. Even brief exposure (in as little as 30 minutes) can cause immediate harm.

Non-smokers who are exposed to secondhand smoking are at risk of premature death and disease – the more exposure, the more you are at risk.

The World Health Organization estimates that across the globe, 600,000 people die every year from the effects of secondhand smoking, with children accounting for 28% of the deaths.

So what are the health effects of secondhand smoking?

Healthy non-smokers who are exposed to passive smoking, are at an increased risk of:

  • lung cancer, with long term exposure increasing the risk by up to 30%
  • heart disease and heart attacks, with long term exposure increasing the risk of a heart attack by one-quarter to one-third
  • strokes, with long term exposure increasing the risk by up to 30%
  • irritation of the eyes and nose
  • developing and aggravating a range of mild to severe respiratory effects

How does secondhand smoking affect babies and children?

Babies and children who are exposed to parental smoking have higher rates of:

  • a lower level of lung function during childhood and adolescence (including bronchitis, pneumonia and other lung/airways infections)
  • mild to severe respiratory symptoms (including coughing, phlegm, wheezing and breathlessness in early childhood and in school aged children; it can even persist into adulthood)
  • asthma (and worsening of asthma symptoms and attacks, including more likely to use asthma medications for a longer period of time)
  • middle ear disease (or ‘glue ear’ which infects and swells the ear; a common cause of hearing loss in children and can delay speech development)
  • meningococcal disease (smokers are more likely to be carriers of the bacteria. Amongst infants and children, meningococcal disease can sometimes cause death, mental disability, hearing loss, or loss of a limb)
  • admission to hospital
  • sudden infant death syndrome (or cot death)

Pregnant women who are exposed to secondhand smoke are also more likely to have a preterm birth, as well as a baby who has a low birth weight.

Children whose parents smoke are also three times more likely to become smokers themselves…

Protecting the community

With the evidence of the effects of secondhand smoking well established, Australia has introduced smokefree laws to protect the health of non-smokers, including babies and children.

Smoking is no longer permitted in enclosed workplaces, restaurants and pubs/clubs, on public transport, in shopping centres, as well as outdoor public spaces, including outdoor areas of underage music/dance events, public swimming pools, skate parks and children’s playgrounds.

Entrances to all public hospitals, community health centres, certain Victorian Government buildings and public premises, as well as Victorian childcare centres, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools are all totally smokefree.

Outdoor smokefree dining and drinking areas will come into effect in In Victoria in August 2017.

So what can smokers do?

Make your home totally smokefree

The best way to protect your loved ones who don’t smoke, is to make your home totally smokefree.

Think about where you smoke. If you currently smoke inside the home, think about smoking outside and away from windows and air vents…

Make your car totally smokefree

As of 1 January 2010, it is illegal to smoke in cars that carry passengers under the age of 18 years old. Whether you have children or not, make your car totally smokefree.

Think about quitting

Most people stop smoking to improve their health and wellbeing, others wish to save some money, and some people stop smoking to be around for their children.  What about you? Think about your reasons and what’s important to you.

Our post on great reasons to quit may encourage you to think about quitting and have another go.

If you do want to quit but are not sure how to deal with cravings, read our post – it explores 10 tips on how to deal with cravings.

The effects of secondhand smoking do affect the health and wellbeing of non-smokers, babies and children. Remember that even brief exposure can be harmful.

Think about your loved ones and what you could do today to protect them from the effects of secondhand smoking.

Until next time, wishing you all great health and wellbeing!

Like this article? Then share it on social media.

Want to be kept up to date? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and as a thank you gift, receive our health & wellbeing e-Book for free.


Eriksen M, Mackay J, Schluger N, Gomeshtapeh FI & Drope J (2015). Tobacco Atlas. Fifth Edition. Revised, Expanded and Update. American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation. U.S.A.

Scollo MM & Winstanley MH (2015). Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria.

Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health (2014). Let’s make the next generation tobacco-free. Your Guide to the 50th Anniversary Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Quit Victoria (2015). Secondhand smoke fact sheet. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2006). The health consequences of involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke: a report of the Surgeon General. [Atlanta, Ga.]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health.

World Health Organization (2016). Tobacco fact sheet.