Healthy living

Passive smoking and your health

What is second hand-smoke?

Second-hand smoke (SHS) is a combination of side stream smoke (smoke from the burning end of a tobacco product) and exhaled mainstream smoke (the smoke breathed out by a smoker).

Passive smoking occurs when SHS is inhaled by non-smokers and they too are breathing the same harmful chemicals as a smoker.

While SHS has been referred to as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) in the past, the term second-hand smoke better captures the involuntary nature of the exposure: most non-smokers do not want to breathe tobacco smoke.1

SHS lingers in the air after tobacco products have been extinguished and can cause or exacerbate a wide range of adverse health effects, including cancer, respiratory infections and asthma.

SHS is classified as a ‘known human carcinogen’ (cancer causing agent) by the US Environmental Protection Agency.2

What are the effects of passive smoking on health?

In the short term, non-smoking adults suffer physical discomfort and annoyance from tobacco smoke.

Breathing SHS has immediate harmful effects on the cardiovascular system that can increase the risk of heart attack. People who already have heart disease or asthma are at especially high risk.2

Even brief exposures can trigger symptoms including:

  • irritation of the eyes and nose
  • headaches
  • sore throat and cough.

Long term exposure to SHS can have serious adverse health effects including:1

  • heart disease
  • lung cancer.

Studies have confirmed that non-smokers who are exposed to SHS at home or at work increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25 to 30 per cent and lung cancer by 20 to 30 per cent.1

Babies, children and passive smoking

Smoking is known to have an effect on babies even before they are born.3

Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen available to the baby through the umbilical cord. This makes the baby’s heart beat more rapidly, and increases overall stress on its developing body.

Smoking can also reduce the flow of blood through the placenta, which limits the amount of nutrients that feed the baby.

Evidence shows that smokers have:3

  • a greater risk of ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage
  • a higher risk of delivering a premature or low birth weight baby.

Mothers who smoke during pregnancy or after birth increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and babies of smokers are more prone to asthma and other respiratory infections.

Children exposed to tobacco smoke experience more middle ear infections.2,3

SHS can cause many diseases and conditions in children including:1,2

  • bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory infections
  • middle ear disease (glue ear)
  • exacerbated asthma.

Laws relating to smoking in enclosed public places

In response to the unequivocal evidence regarding health effects and overwhelming public support, legislative changes have been brought about over a number of years to reduce community exposure to SHS.

Legislation banning smoking in enclosed public places was commenced, with partial bans introduced in March 1999 and total bans introduced on 31 July 2006. 

Smoking is prohibited in enclosed public places, which is any place that has an impermeable roof and walls, structures or coverings either solid or partly solid which in total enclose the perimeter of the place by more than 50 per cent.

An outdoor area can be an enclosed public place if it meets the above definition.

Smoking is prohibited in a wide range of public places, including shopping centres, business premises, sporting and recreation centres, community centres, buses, taxis and trains.

Laws relating to smoking in enclosed workplaces

The Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 prohibit employees and self-employed persons from smoking in enclosed workplaces.

Visit Worksafe Western Australia (external site) or phone 9327 8777 for more information.

Protecting yourself and others from second-hand smoke

Make your home and car smoke-free, particularly if children are present.

Encourage your friends and family to quit smoking.

Assist in ensuring proprietors of public places comply with legislated smoking bans by reporting concerns to:

  • venue management
  • local government authorities (if necessary) who are primarily responsible for enforcing the smoking bans in enclosed public places.

Ask to be seated away from designated outdoor smoking areas (if existing non-smoking facilities are inadequate, notify venue management).

If you are a smoker

  • Smoke outside when you are at home.
  • Smoke away from others, especially away from children.
  • Make your car smoke-free.
  • Consider quitting.

Where to get help


Quitline is a confidential telephone support service staffed by professional advisors who are trained to provide encouragement and support to help you quit.

Phone: 13 7848 (13 QUIT) (local call rates from land line only). Advisors are available from:
  • Monday to Friday 6am – 7pm
  • Saturday 11.30pm – 2.30pm
  • Sunday closed.


  • Passive smoking happens when non-smokers inhale second hand smoke (SHS) from others.
  • Long-term exposure to SHS can lead to heart disease and lung cancer.
  • Smoking during and after pregnancy increases the risk of sudden death syndrome (SIDS) in babies.
  • WA legislation bans smoking in enclosed public places.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2006. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coordinating Center for Health Promotion, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health.
  2. California Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Identification of Environmental Tobacco Smoke as a Toxic Air Contaminant. Executive Summary.
  3. British Medical Association. 2004. Smoking and reproductive life, the impact of smoking on sexual, reproductive and child health. British Medical Association Board of Science and Education & Tobacco Control Resource Centre.

Last reviewed: 04-01-2022
Chronic Disease Prevention Directorate

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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