Smoking for two (or more): New reports link secondhand smoke to heart attacks

Saturday, February 6, 2010
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It's a well-known fact that smoking is an unhealthy habit. But did you also know that smoking is the most avoidable cause of disease and death? That secondhand smoke alone increases the risk of heart disease by 25 to 30 percent? And that at 24.9 percent, Missouri has the fourth-highest rate of adult smoking in the United States? The national average is just 18.3 percent.

"Exposure changes your baseline health risk," said Cindy Seyer, director of wellness services at Southeast Missouri Hospital. An otherwise healthy person who smokes or is exposed to secondhand smoke is at a significantly higher risk for heart disease and stroke. "If you already have high blood pressure and you smoke, you increase your risk for stroke and heart attack," she said.

Staci Bowling, tobacco cessation project coordinator at Saint Francis Medical Center, says that according to the American Heart Association, smoking raises blood pressure, increases the likelihood of blood clots, decreases circulation by hardening arteries, and lowers the body's ability to tolerate exercise. All of these factors have a negative effect on heart health. The Centers for Disease Control says smokers are two to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease.

In 2009, the National Institute of Medicine examined 11 studies that found a reduced risk of heart attack -- from 6 percent to 47 percent -- among nonsmokers in cities with smoking bans. The study noted that secondhand smoke has immediate effects on the cardiovascular system, including inflammation and blood clots, and contains many of the same components found in air pollution, which has also been tied to heart attacks. Based on this information, the institute agreed with the surgeon general that there is a direct, causal relationship between secondhand smoke and heart disease, and that smoking bans reduce heart attacks.

Even more, the surgeon general says there may be a higher concentration of toxic chemicals in secondhand smoke than in smoke directly inhaled by smokers. Breathing secondhand smoke -- a combination of smoke from burning tobacco and exhaled mainstream smoke -- immediately affects the heart, blood and vascular system in ways that increase the risk of heart attack. Creating smoking and nonsmoking areas, ventilating buildings and purifying the air is ineffective in controlling secondhand smoke. Heating, cooling or ventilation systems make the problem worse by spreading smoke throughout the building.

Children are especially vulnerable to secondhand smoke. Studies have shown that those exposed to secondhand smoke have higher rates of sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, asthma and other breathing problems.

Seyer says most people don't realize the hidden danger of cigarettes: that tobacco products contain more harmful, poisonous things than you would assume. There are nearly 4,000 chemicals in a cigarette, and at least 43 of them are carcinogenic, or cancer-causing -- like ammonia, which is used in floor and toilet cleaners, and naphthalene, which is used in moth balls. Tobacco leaves probably even contain traces of pesticides and animal droppings, says Seyer.

"The best way to protect yourself from secondhand smoke is to avoid it. When secondhand smoke is unavoidable, the least amount of time being exposed, the better," said Bowling.

For smokers, Seyer said, "The best thing you can do is go outside and isolate yourself."

Even better? Stop smoking.

"The best advice I can give someone who wants to quit smoking is that you have to want to quit," said Bowling. "A personal commitment to quit smoking is the biggest and most difficult step to take. I find the most success with participants who sincerely want to quit. When they come into the program with a positive attitude and are determined to quit, 90 percent of the battle has been won."

Everyone in the home should make the same commitment to quit smoking, adds Seyer, and support from friends and family is crucial to keep you accountable. Tell others about your plans, use online resources to quit smoking, and surround yourself with people who will support your goal and not hinder it.

"It takes the average person five attempts to quit smoking," says Seyer. "You will fail five times before you learn enough about yourself to know your weaknesses and things that drive you back to old habits."

Ready to quit? You're not alone. Check out these resources for information, advice and moral support.

Freedom from Smoking

Available at both Southeast Missouri Hospital and Saint Francis Medical Center

Staffers trained by the American Lung Association lead participants through group smoking-cessation courses over several weeks. Participants learn to track their smoking triggers, break the cycle of smoking and use nicotine replacement therapy. There is a program fee, but funding is available to reduce the cost for some people. Those who successfully quit smoking will get a portion of their money back.

Missouri Tobacco Quitline


The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services offers free counseling, referrals to local resources and information packets.

Find educational information, quizzes, a "craving journal," ways to identify smoking triggers, and calculate how much money you'll save if you quit. Live support available via instant message on the Web site or at 1-877-440-QUIT.

American Cancer Society

Take the Great American Smokeout Challenge, read tips on how to quit smoking or help someone else quit, find local resources, take quizzes, and sign up to have a Quitline representative contact you.

American Lung Association


Connect with local programs and find information, tips and reasons to quit smoking.

Breathe Easy Missouri

Directory of smoke-free restaurants and businesses in your area.

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