Next to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, few widespread “plagues of civilization” have been decried as much as second hand smoke. It has led to almost wholesale changes in commercial packaging, zoning laws, and even advertising campaigns.
Science seems to still be conflicted over how bad second hand smoke, or “passive smoking”, really is for you. One side claims that it is just as harmful (if not more) than direct smoke inhalation whilst the other claims that the levels of carcinogenic inhalation is minimal and for all practical health purposes negligible. The truth, it seems, is buried somewhere between these two extremes.
Second hand smoke is defined as the passive inhalation of smoke through the environment rather than through a primary source such as a pipe, cigarette, or cigar. It is almost always unintentional and is rarely pleasant. Those who do not smoke on a regular basis may themselves be quite easily irritated by passive smoke inhalation as their lungs are completely unused to its effects.
There is no argument over whether such passive inhalation is pleasant; smoking and non-smoking sections of restaurants were originally created to address issues of comfort rather than health. The main discussion seems to be over just how harmful second hand smoking is to a passive victim.
Currently, there is significant widespread consensus that second hand smoking is indeed harmful. Pockets of extremists may attempt to argue that the effects are unnoticeable, but their voices are few and generally unsupported by the medical community. The main question is the degree to which passive smoke inhalation can harm an individual. While extensive exposure to second hand smoke has been definitively linked to disease, death, and disability, the controversy has managed to evolve into a creature that is more political in nature than medical in nature.
If the effects of second hand smoking are harmful enough, it can be argued that the government can mandate certain divisions and restrictions on smoking for the safety of the general public.
Thus far, scientific research seems to conclude that second hand smoking causes anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 deaths a year in the United States. While these numbers alone seem to warrant government intervention, the effects of second hand smoking on infants and children are even more drastic. Infants and children exposed to second hand smoke face significantly increased risks for asthma and various cardiovascular diseases.
Passive exposure to smoke inhalation, even at a moderate level, has been shown to potentially lead to cancer and pronounced lung problems. The distinction however is “over time”. One-time passive smoke exposure from a couple smoking a cigar at the table next to you will not lead to chronic health problems. Over time, if you are exposed to second-hand smoke regularly, it leads to an increased risk for everything from lung disease to cancer.
If it is at all possible, stay away from passive smoke inhalation. This is especially important for infants and small children who are acutely susceptible to the effects of second hand smoke. If you yourself smoke, attempt to do so away from other people. While the policy debate will rage on, there is now a medical consensus that passive smoke inhalation is harmful.