Leaked Government report shows extent of health damage from secondhand smoke

Monday 18 October 2004

ASH news release: Immediate Use, Monday 18th October 2004
A confidential report to Government by Britain’s top medical scientists, revealed in today’s Evening Standard, shows the extent of the health damage caused by breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke.

The Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health (SCOTH: see http://www.advisorybodies.doh.gov.uk/scoth/members.htm for membership) reported to Government four months ago, although Health Secretary John Reid has yet to make their findings public. The report updates their previous work, published in 1998.

The leaked report comes as Health Secretary John Reid is reported to be considering exempting “wet-led” pubs from a proposed new law ending smoking in the workplace, even though bar staff are perhaps the single group of employees most at risk from secondhand smoke. A White Paper on public health, containing proposals aimed at cutting the health damage caused by smoking, is expected to be published in November. The SCOTH report states that “overall exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in the population has declined somewhat as cigarette smoking prevalence has continued to come down. However, some groups, for example bar staff, are heavily exposed at their place of work and almost half of all children still live in households with at least one smoker.”

The SCOTH report concludes that: “it is evident that no infant, child or adult should be exposed to secondhand smoke … Secondhand smoke represents a substantial public health hazard”.

The Executive Summary of the latest report reveals that:

·        There is an increased risk of lung cancer for non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke of about 24%, confirming the findings of the previous report.

·        There is an increased risk of ischaemic heart disease for non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke, and “the weight of evidence now is stronger than at the time of the [1998] SCOTH report. The increased risk associated with exposure to secondhand smoke is in the order of 25%”.

·        Children are at particular risk from secondhand smoke – “the evidence strongly links secondhand smoke with an increased risk of pneumonia and bronchitis, asthma attacks, middle ear disease, decreased lung function and sudden infant death syndrome. It has also been shown that babies born to mothers who come into contact with secondhand smoke have lower birth weights”.

·        “The evidence published since1998 points to an association between secondhand smoke and respiratory symptoms and reduced lung functions in adults”. A major study in Finland has provided strong evidence that “adult onset asthma is significantly increased by recent exposure to secondhand smoke at work and at home”.

Action on Smoking and Health warns that the health risks from both domestic and workplace exposure to secondhand smoke are causing several thousand premature deaths a year across the United Kingdom, as well as many thousands of episodes of illness. Professor Konrad Jamrozik of Imperial College London has estimated for a conference of the Royal College of Physicians that 700 premature deaths are caused each year in the UK by exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace (www.hse.gov.uk/press/2003/c03065.htm).
Deborah Arnott, Director of Action on Smoking and Health, comments:

“This report shows that Britain’s leading medical experts have concluded that secondhand smoke is a serious risk to public health. It is deeply worrying that the Government has sat on this for months; it should have been published in good time to inform debate around the public health White Paper. Remarkably, on TV yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health was still referring to the ‘possible’ health effects of secondhand smoke.

The report shows that there is no longer any excuse to deny the health damage caused by secondhand smoke. It also shows the absurdity of exempting from any new law the very group of employees most exposed to risk. November’s White Paper must follow the Irish model and end smoking in the workplace once and for all. The clear lesson of the report is that nothing less will do.”


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