Passive Smoking

Authored by , Reviewed by Prof Cathy Jackson | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

You have an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease if you are exposed to other people smoking for long periods of time.

If you smoke, one good reason to give up smoking is to benefit those who live and work with you. If you can't give up, you should make every effort to keep cigarette smoke away from other people, ideally by smoking outside.

To read more facts about smoking, see the separate leaflet called Quit Smoking (Smoking Cessation).

Children and babies who live in a home where there is a smoker:

  • Are more prone to asthma, and ear, nose and chest infections.
  • Have an increased risk of dying from cot death (sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Are more likely than average to become smokers themselves when older.
  • On average, do less well at reading and reasoning skills compared to children in smoke-free homes, even at low levels of smoke exposure.
  • Are at increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancer as adults.

Nicotine and other toxins can seep into clothing, soft furnishing, etc; a child does not have to be in a room or a car, while someone is smoking, to be harmed from the effects of their smoke.

Passive smoking of adults. You have an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease if you are exposed to other people smoking for long periods of time. For example, the risk of developing lung cancer is increased by about 20-30% in people who are regularly exposed to other people's cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke is also an irritant and can make asthma and other conditions worse.

Passive smoking in pregnancy

Smoking when you are pregnant can harm your unborn baby. See the separate leaflet called Pregnancy and Smoking for more details.

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The overall health impact of passive smoking is large. Although the health risks from passive smoking are small for the individual in comparison with the health risks from active smoking, the public health consequences of passive smoking are high due to the large numbers of people exposed.

For example, passive smoking by people living with smokers in the UK increases the risk of death from coronary heart disease by 50-60%. It is estimated to cause around 2,700 deaths per year in people aged 20-64, and a further 8,000 deaths per year among people aged 65 or older.

It is estimated that children breathing in other people's cigarette smoke resulted in 300,000 GP visits and 9,500 hospital admissions in 2011 in the UK. Up to five million children are thought to be regularly exposed to second-hand smoke in the home.

The results of a survey on children's views on smoking were published on the Department of Health's website. The survey revealed that children want smoke-free lives.

The survey found that:

  • 98% of children wished their parents would stop smoking.
  • 82% of children wished their parents wouldn't smoke in front of them at home.
  • 78% of children wished their parents wouldn't smoke in front of them in the car.
  • 41% of children said cigarette smoke made them feel ill.
  • 42% of children said cigarette smoke made them cough.

For information on how to stop smoking and the different treatments to help you stop, see the separate leaflet called Quit Smoking (Smoking Cessation)

How to Quit Smoking


Further reading and references

  • Cao S, Yang C, Gan Y, et al; The Health Effects of Passive Smoking: An Overview of Systematic Reviews Based on Observational Epidemiological Evidence. PLoS One. 2015 Oct 610(10):e0139907. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0139907. eCollection 2015.

  • Reid RD, Pritchard G, Walker K, et al; Managing smoking cessation. CMAJ. 2016 Dec 6188(17-18):E484-E492. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.151510. Epub 2016 Oct 3.

  • Smoking cessation; NICE CKS, October 2012 (UK access only)

  • Smoking: harm reduction; NICE Public Health Guidance, June 2013

  • Wu J, Sin DD; Improved patient outcome with smoking cessation: when is it too late? Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 20116:259-67. doi: 10.2147/COPD.S10771. Epub 2011 May 2.

  • Cahill K, Stevens S, Perera R, et al; Pharmacological interventions for smoking cessation: an overview and network meta-analysis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 May 315:CD009329. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009329.pub2.

  • Hartmann-Boyce J, McRobbie H, Bullen C, et al; Electronic cigarettes for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Sep 149:CD010216.

  • E-cigarettes: an evidence update; Public Health England, August 2015

  • Hughes JR, Stead LF, Hartmann-Boyce J, et al; Antidepressants for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Jan 81:CD000031. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000031.pub4.

  • Cahill K, Lindson-Hawley N, Thomas KH, et al; Nicotine receptor partial agonists for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 May 9(5):CD006103. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006103.pub7.

  • Anthenelli RM, Benowitz NL, West R, et al; Neuropsychiatric safety and efficacy of varenicline, bupropion, and nicotine patch in smokers with and without psychiatric disorders (EAGLES): a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Lancet. 2016 Jun 18387(10037):2507-20. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30272-0. Epub 2016 Apr 22.

  • Hackshaw A, Morris JK, Boniface S, et al; Low cigarette consumption and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: meta-analysis of 141 cohort studies in 55 study reports. BMJ. 2018 Jan 24360:j5855.