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Children and second-hand smoke exposure

“Second-hand smoke is a health hazard to you and your family. There is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke. Give your child a smoke-free childhood.” Only 100% smoke-free environments protect your children and family from the very serious health problems that breathing second-hand smoke causes.

Second-hand smoke (SHS), also known as environmental tobacco smoke, consists of both the smoke that is exhaled from the lungs of smokers and the smoke that is given off by a burning tobacco product between puffs. Second-hand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic or cancer-causing.

The 2006 United States Surgeon General’s Report concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke and that even brief exposures can be harmful.

SHS facts

  • About half of all children worldwide (700 million children) are exposed to second-hand smoke, particularly at home.
  • A single cigarette smoked in a room with poor ventilation generates much higher concentrations of toxic substances in the air than normal, everyday activities in a city.
  • Toxic compounds from second-hand smoke linger in the air for an extended period of time.
  • Nicotine from second-hand smoke is deposited on household surfaces and in dust.
  • The air quality found inside a car with someone smoking is similar to or worse than the air quality found in smoky pubs.
  • Non-smokers who are exposed even briefly to a smoky environment take up and process (metabolize) the components of tobacco smoke.

Your response should be zero tolerance

  • Do not allow anyone to smoke in your home.
  • Demand that all indoor public places be 100% smoke-free.

Exposure to second-hand smoke in children increases risk of:

  • Low birth weight
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • Ear infections
  • Poor lung development
  • Bronchitis and pneumonia
  • Asthma, cough, and wheeze
  • Being exposed to second-hand smoke as a child may lead to respiratory problems later in life.

Public awareness and tobacco control

Many countries have passed or are considering passing laws to prohibit or restrict smoking in public places, to protect children from exposure to second-hand smoke outside the home.

Even if smoking is banned in all public places, this approach will not protect children from second-hand smoke in the home. Exposure in the home is the most important source of exposure to second-hand smoke for young children.

Implementation of laws that restrict smoking outside the home do motivate some people to quit smoking and encourages some families to implement smoke-free home rules.

Educational efforts that warn smokers about the harmful effects of second-hand smoke and smoking while pregnant can influence the behaviour of parents.

Key message

“I love my smoke-free childhood” appeals to adults and parents to recognize that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke and to actively support smoke-free environments for children.

It calls on parents and other caregivers to advocate for and provide a safe and healthy environment for children. It is an encouragement of parental responsibility, not a constraint on personal freedom. It recognizes the fundamental right of children to breathe clean air.

Protect your child

  • There is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Because you care, protect your children from second-hand smoke
  • Teach children to stay away from second-hand smoke
  • Avoid smoking or allowing others to smoke in your home or car, even when your children are not there
  • Do not smoke while pregnant or in the vicinity of someone who is pregnant
  • Use a smoke-free day care centre
  • Keep your children away from restaurants or other indoor public places that allow smoking
  • If you are a smoker, ask your doctor what you can do to stop
  • Become a role model for your child – do not smoke

Source: UICC (International Union Against Cancer)

Time to Quit

  • Call the National Council Against Smoking QUIT Line: 011-720 3145

Queries CANSA

For more information or should you wish to quit smoking and need support, contact Gerda Strauss, Head of Health Programmes (CANSA) – email:

Alternately call the toll free line at 0800 22 66 22 or

Do you have a question?
Book a counselling session

CANSA Tele Counselling

 0800 22 6622 Toll Free
 072 197 9305 English and Afrikaans (text only)
 071 867 3530 isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi (text only)


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