The dangers of secondary smoke are well known but child carers need to act on that advice, says Sheila Duffy
We’ve all seen the ads featuring a boy with an image of blackened lungs soiling the front of his white T-shirt.
They’re part of the campaign by the Scottish Government, supported by ASH Scotland and others, to alert people to the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke in their homes and cars.
The Take It Right Outside initiative is aimed at cutting the number of children exposed to smoke at home. The total in Scotland is currently about 100,000 and the nation has set an ambitious target – a world first – to slash that figure in half by 2020.
As part of that drive, we’re stepping up our efforts to get the message across about second-hand smoke.
We’ve received support from the Scottish Government and others to allow us to offer specialist free training so people who work or volunteer with parents and carers of children aged under five can learn about the risks from tobacco smoke and help their clients understand them and take action.
Our one-day course tells participants about the health effects of second-hand smoke on children and babies and highlights the simple steps parents can take to protect their children from them. We also give advice on how they should broach the potentially tricky subject with smokers and offer them motivational support rather than appearing to be critical of them.
Second-hand smoke is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar and the smoke breathed out by tobacco users.
It’s important to protect children from second-hand smoke in homes and cars because it has been shown to have a number of worrying effects on the health of little ones. About 9,500 children are admitted to hospital in the UK every year because of it.
Tobacco smoke can cause babies to be weaker when they’re born, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes when they’re adults and being overweight when they grow up. Children and infants are more vulnerable to tobacco smoke than adults because they have smaller airways and breathe faster and their immune systems are still developing
A child is more likely to get middle ear infection -– “glue ear’” – if their mum or dad smokes and children whose parents light up in the home are twice as likely to have asthma symptoms all year round. Being around second-hand smoke is linked to a bigger risk of coughing, wheezing and croup. Most seriously, tobacco smoke also greatly increases the risk of cot death and childhood meningitis.
And we know children are three times more likely to smoke when they get older if they grow up around smokers.
Second-hand smoke is also bad for pets – dogs with long snouts get nasal cancer more frequently than those in a smoke-free environment, while other dogs have more respiratory cancers. Cats are more likely to suffer from mouth cancer if their owner smokes. Pets such as birds, rabbits and rats have very sensitive respiratory systems and living in a smoking household has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer and pneumonia among them.
The advice for tobacco users is to go outside to smoke. And take a few steps away from the door to make sure the smoke isn’t creeping back into your home.
Staying inside by an open door or window isn’t enough to tackle the problem. Smoke can still be there even when it can’t be seen or smelt. It can seep invisibly through open windows or doors. Even when a cigarette is stubbed out the small particles in the air can stay in a room for several hours – and there’s no safe level of second-hand smoke exposure.
Most parents who smoke already take some steps to protect their children. Smoking by the back door, or in one particular room, can help but we urge people to take it right outside whenever they can because that’s the only way to completely protect the family.
Going outside may not be easy for those who don’t have a garden or a balcony. But utilising trips to the park or the shops, and having nicotine replacement products can help.
We’ve carried out tests using air quality monitors in the homes of smoking parents that showed their children were exposed to pollution levels from tobacco smoke far worse than in busy city streets. But testing also proved that lighting up right outside cut those pollution levels down to below the World Health Organisation guidance levels.
So taking a few steps outside to smoke really does help to protect children, pets, and others of all ages, from the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke.
• Sheila Duffy is chief executive of ASH Scotland www.ashscotland.org.uk