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Negative health impacts of secondhand smoke still emerging after 40 years

Posted 29 Jan, 2021

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a landmark study that first revealed the risks of exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS). 

The study, published in 1981 by Japanese scientist Takeshi Hirayama, followed 91,000 non-smoking Japanese women for 14 years and found their risk of developing lung cancer was directly related to how much their husbands smoked around them. 

Dr Sarah White, director of Quit said the study was the first of “thousands” that have shown exposure to SHS has significant health effects. These effects range from lethal for newborns, with SHS a key cause of sudden infant death syndrome, to lifelong disadvantage from exposure in childhood.

“Just recently, for example, a large American study found that higher exposure to SHS in childhood is associated with poorer heart function and higher risk of heart disease right through adulthood,” Dr White said. “That’s on top of immediate health risks for children such as asthma attacks and respiratory infections.”

Todd Harper, chief executive officer of Cancer Council Victoria said that Victoria’s extensive smokefree legislation has undoubtedly saved lives. 

“Worldwide, exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS) is responsible for an estimated 600,000 deaths every year,” Mr Harper said. “In England, there was an immediate reduction in stillbirths when comprehensive smokefree legislation was introduced in 2007 , and there is consistent evidence that the introduction of smokefree legislation is followed by decreases in hospital admissions and deaths from heart attacks, strokes and respiratory diseases.” 

Dr White warned that SHS is still an issue for many people living in high-density buildings. “It’s not uncommon for Quit to get calls from people living in high density buildings who have smoke penetrating into their apartments or homes from their neighbours,” she said.

For more quitting advice, visit or call the Quitline on 13 7848 between 8am and 8pm Monday to Friday. Quitline is a culturally inclusive telephone service for all, including the LGBTIQ+ community. Aboriginal Quitline counsellors are also available.

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