Underestimating the Harms of Smoking

Smokers often underestimate the harms of smoking and assume no harm is done to others if they do not light up in front of non-smokers, or if they ventilate the enclosed space they are lighting up in. But their efforts do little to minimise the health risks. This is because residual gases and particles containing nicotine and other toxic chemicals, known as thirdhand smoke (THS), have been found to remain on their hair and clothing, as well as furniture, walls and flooring, possibly for months. THS may increase cancer risks, trigger asthma attacks, as well as cause eye, lung, and throat irritation. “THS also reacts with pollutants in the environment to form other toxic chemicals that could be more hazardous to a person’s health,” warns Ms Chu Shen Onn, Senior Pharmacist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Thirdhand Smoke

THS is a relatively new term coined by Dr Jonathan P. Winickoff, Assistant Professor of Paediatrics at Harvard Medical School when he carried out a study in 2009 to assess the health beliefs of adults regarding THS exposure in children. He believed that THS was picked up through inhalation, contact with affected surfaces, or ingested via smoke contaminated hands. “This puts infants and young children at a greater risk of exposure than adults, as they crawl and play on floors or furniture, and then put their contaminated hands into their mouth,” says Ms Chu. “THS may be just as harmful as secondhand smoke.”

Lingering Effects of Thirdhand Smoke

While more research has been emerging in recent years, healthcare professionals still do not know the full extent of harm caused by this silent, chronic exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. Studies suggest that THS can linger up to two months after smokers had vacated their apartments — this despite new carpeting and a fresh coat of paint. Other similar studies show that THS can soak into porous surfaces such as carpets or concrete walls, before being released back into the air. “There is currently no known method to effectively get rid of THS from our environment,” says Ms Chu.

Related: Effects of Secondhand Smoke on Your Child’s Health

Don’t Give Up Quitting Smoking

There are a number of ways to stop smoking and prevent health effects caused by cigarette smoke.

While there are no real solutions for cleaning up the contaminants caused by the effects of thirdhand smoke, the most effective ways to avoid the harmful effects of cigarette smoke are to quit or stay smoke-free. Smokers can try going “cold turkey” (stop smoking completely at one go) or reduce the number of sticks over time to reduce health risks. They may also want to try distracting themselves from smoking or lengthening the time in-between sticks.

Some choose to pick up healthy habits such as exercise.

Quit Smoking for Good

“Quitting smoking is never easy and requires motivation,” acknowledges Ms Chu. “Family members and friends can do their part by giving their support.” They can help by dropping friendly reminders or words of encouragement. They can also spend quality time with the smoker, so as to keep his or her mind off smoking. Some smokers feel unwell from withdrawal symptoms. This is when support from loved ones is critical. Withdrawal symptoms usually subside after a few weeks, signalling that their bodies are getting used to a smoke-free life.

If smokers feel that they cannot quit on their own, they should seek help from healthcare professionals, who may be able to provide certain medications to help them quit smoking. These include:

  • Non-prescription medicines such as Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) that are available from retail pharmacies.
  • Prescription-only medicines such as Bupropion or Varenicline.

“Even if smokers cannot kick the habit on their first attempt, they should recognise the effort and keep trying,” says Ms Chu. Smokers, on average, take four to seven attempts to quit smoking successfully. “Every attempt to quit is a learning opportunity to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which will help in their next quit attempt,” says Ms Chu.

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