Secondhand Smoke — Can It Blow Away Your Sanity?

Source was: Bottom Line’s Daily Health News 8/26/10


Secondhand Smoke — Can It Blow Away Your Sanity?

There’s no question about the physical hazards of smoking — both for smokers and for those around them who breathe in the secondhand smoke — but did you know that secondhand smoke actually may threaten your sanity as well? A compelling research study in a recent issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that secondhand smoke not only causes physical harm but also increases the likelihood of psychological distress and psychiatric disorders severe enough to require hospitalization!

Smoking and State of Mind

In the Scottish Health Survey, health and lifestyle information was collected at random from more than 8,000 adults, none of whom had any history of mental health problems. Participants completed questionnaires about their physical and mental health — assessing smoking habits, sleep patterns and measures of happiness, depression and anxiety. A saliva sample also was taken from each participant at the start of the study and tested for levels of cotinine, a chemical metabolite produced during nicotine breakdown in the body that is considered a marker of tobacco exposure. Then, six years later, mental health was assessed once again and — at the risk of sounding dramatic — the differences were breathtaking. Here’s what researchers found:

  • Self-reported nonsmokers with high levels of cotinine in their bodies had nearly 50% greater incidence of psychological distress (depression or anxiety) than nonsmokers with no cotinine in their systems.
  • This same group was nearly three times more likely to have been hospitalized for psychiatric problems, including depression, schizophrenia and delirium, than those who had minimal or no measurable cotinine in their bodies.
  • People who smoked were about four times more likely to have been hospitalized for a psychiatric problem than people with no cotinine in their systems — in other words, the smokers were only somewhat more likely to have suffered psychological issues than people who had been exposed to secondhand smoke.

How Worried Should I Be?

This study establishes a link, not causation, emphasized Mark Hamer, PhD, an epidemiologist at University College London and one of the study authors, but he also said that he believes it offers yet more support showing the strong need for public policies that help to curb smoking so innocent people won’t be victimized by exposure to secondhand smoke. Dr. Hamer told me that in spite of widespread antismoking measures, a shocking 60% of children ages three to 11 in the US have measurable levels of cotinine, indicating that they are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. Other studies have even shown evidence that there is significant danger from exposure to "third-hand smoke" — what’s left in the air and on floors and furniture after a cigarette is extinguished.

The advice is self-evident but bears repeating. Do anything and everything you can to avoid being around cigarette smokers and in places where they congregate. To reduce the likelihood that you will suffer ill effects — physical or mental — try to…

  • Make your home and your car nonsmoking zones.
  • Choose smoke-free restaurants and hotel rooms.
  • Advocate for elderly family, children, teens and friends to protect them from exposure to smoke in their environments.

In the meantime, based on this study, I think it would be crazy not to protest when someone lights up nearby!

Mark Hamer, PhD, epidemiologist, department of epidemiology and public health, University College London. Dr. Hamer’s research focuses on aging, cardiovascular health, mental health and population health.


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