MONDAY, Oct. 9 (HealthSCOUT) -- That faint whiff of tobacco smoke that drifts into your airspace in a restaurant, on the street or at work may be more than just an annoyance.
It can mean more visits to the doctor, more need for medication and more time off from work, says new research.
That's the finding of a study of more than 5,000 Hong Kong police officers who never smoked but were exposed to passive smoke on the job. Results of the study, conducted by researchers in the community medicine department at the University of Hong Kong, appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
After exposure to secondhand smoke for more than a year, nonsmoking male officers were twice as likely to take time off and more than 30 percent more likely to need treatment for respiratory problems than their colleagues working in a smoke-free environment, the study says. The results held true, it says, even after accounting for levels of passive smoking at home.
Results for women officers were similar, but not enough women participated in the study to draw conclusions, the researchers say.
The findings renewed an old debate between pro- and anti-smoking forces over whether "environmental tobacco smoke" is really a cause for alarm for nonsmokers.
"I don't think that there's a question that for the past five years or 10 years even that passive smoke, environmental tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke -- call it what you will -- is a major health hazard," says John Banzhaff, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.
The latest study is just another piece of evidence that secondhand smoke is a real danger, he says.
"Originally, employers were worried about the health costs for smoking employees," Banzhaff says. "But now we're also seeing that secondhand tobacco smoke, in addition to being annoying and an irritation and possibly leading to things like heart attacks and strokes, does cause short-term medical illnesses."
But a spokesman for the tobacco industry says that, while some evidence of harmful effects of secondhand smoke exists, there is no scientific proof.
"There are many public health organizations that have determined that secondhand smoke is the cause of various diseases, [but] we believe that the scientific substantiation for that conclusion is lacking," says Seth Moskowitz, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
"There is evidence," he says. "But we don't believe that the evidence supports the conclusion that secondhand smoke leads to any disease in any otherwise healthy nonsmokers."
Ventilation, common courtesy
The solution to the problem of secondhand smoke is simple, he says: ventilation and common courtesy.
"We think secondhand cigarette smoke can be annoying to nonsmokers and that nonsmokers have every right to avoid being exposed to secondhand smoke if they so choose," Moskowitz says. "But we don't think there need to be smoking bans in order to accommodate the wishes of smokers and nonsmokers."
"Common courtesy and common sense, along with adequate ventilation and filtration, can go a long way in allowing smokers to smoke while not bothering nonsmokers," he says.
Ron Todd, director of tobacco control for the American Cancer Society, agrees that isolation is part of the solution. But he also says there's no question that passive smoke is a real health problem.
"I think the industry likes to try to keep the issue alive, but it's pretty well accepted by scientists who are unrelated to the industry that environmental tobacco smoke does pose a risk and should be restricted," Todd says.
"Our belief is that fortunately it's an easy pollutant to get rid of simply by restricting smokers to separately ventilated rooms or requiring people to go outside in a designated smoking area," he says.
Or, as Banzhaff says, "To put it in the very simplest terms: Like certain other conduct, smoking should be confined to consenting adults, period."
What To Do
Passive smoking has been shown to exacerbate breathing problems in children with asthma. Be especially careful to keep children in a smoke-free environment.
For more on the tobacco industry's position on secondhand smoke, visit the Web site of R.J. Reynolds.
For a look at the activities of a national anti-smoking organization, including links to smoking-related news of the day, check out Action on Smoking and Health online.
Or, you may want to read previous HealthSCOUT articles on secondhand smoke.