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Help and advice on quitting smoking

Passive smoking: Toxicity and protective measures

The risks linked to smoking have been scientifically demonstrated by dozens of studies. Tobacco smoke contains 4,000 chemical substances, 60 of which are carcinogenic. It is dangerous both for smokers and for those around them. What exactly is passive smoking? How can you protect yourself from it? What does the law say? Let’s look at these questions.

Composition of smoke

Passive smoking is the involuntary inhalation by non-smokers of the smoke produced by someone around them. There are three types of cigarette smoke:

  1. The smoke that the smoker inhales directly.
  2. The secondary smoke that is emitted sideways from the cigarette (and which has a very different composition from the smoke directly inhaled by the smoker).
  3. The smoke exhaled by the smoker, which plays a minor role.

The secondary smoke is the most direct cause of passive smoking. It is emitted over a long period of time (about 10 minutes, while the smoke exhaled by the smoker is only emitted for between 20 and 30 seconds) and most importantly, it has not been filtered by either the cigarette or the lungs of the smoker.

The smoker inhales more smoke than the passive smoker. However, two further factors must be taken into consideration:

  1. The composition of the smoke. When it is emitted, the secondary smoke contains a greater number of harmful substances than the smoke inhaled by the active smoker. The concentration of substances drops dramatically in the outside air. The passive smoker therefore inhales a stream of gases in which chemical products are present in varying quantities.
  2. The length of exposure. This may be occasional (eg. the length of an evening from time to time) or regular (from childhood through to adulthood).  Obviously, the longer the person is exposed to cigarette smoke, the more health risks they

Source: Dautzenberg B. Le tabagisme passif. Rapport du groupe de travail DGS, 2001, pp.9-15 PDF

Risks for non-smokers

In 2002, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) formally announced that passive smoking was a cause of cancer. In the non-smokers affected, passive smoking can cause:

  • Damage to the cardiovascular system
  • Lung cancer
  • Asthma and respiratory tract infections

The most recent research shows that a one-off exposure to passive smoke of 30 minutes is enough to temporarily weaken a person’s heart.

In Germany, more than 3,300 non-smokers die every year because of passive smoking, the majority of them as a result of cardiovascular diseases.

In France, a report from the Academy of Medicine in 1997 put the number of non-smokers killed each year by passive smoking at 3,000. In Switzerland, this equates to 260 smokers dying from passive smoking every year.

Source: Basic Information on passive smoking (French: Informations de base sur le tabagisme passif), a document produced by the Federal Office of Public Health (2007)

Health risks to children

  • Passive smoking in children slows down the development of the lungs and causes respiratory tract infections, ear infections and asthma. A serious asthma attack can put a child’s life in danger. In school-age children, secondary smoke causes coughing, mucous in the throat and pharynx, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
  • In young babies, passive smoking can increase the risk of cot death. Exposure to passive smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and premature labor. The fetus may suffer retarded development and a low birth weight.

Precautionary measures

If your partner smokes, ask them to refrain from doing so in your presence and to avoid smoky environments.

Only areas which are entirely smoke-free effectively protect people from passive smoking. As for ventilation systems, they only succeed in filtering the visible smoke. They do not prevent miniscule, highly toxic gas particles from staying in the atmosphere.

Passive smoking in the workplace is a work-related hazard. It is impossible to set an acceptable limit for cigarette smoke – even the slightest exposure can be harmful for health, which means that the total protection of non-smokers in the workplace is justified. 

Federal Act on Protection against Passive Smoking:

On 1 May 2010, the Federal Act on Protection Against Passive Smoking (French: la loi sur la protection contre le tabagisme passif) came into force. It applies to enclosed spaces accessible to the public as well as to areas which serve as a workplace for several people. It does not apply to spaces serving as a workplace for just one individual, or to private households.

Nevertheless, the federal regulations permit exceptions:

  • Designated smoking rooms: in enclosed spaces accessible to the public and in workplaces, it is permitted to smoke in separate, specially designated rooms fitted with adequate ventilation. However, nobody should work there.
  • Services in smoking rooms: Cafés, restaurants and hotels can offer a catering service in their smoking rooms if the employees affected have given their express consent. Outside of these industries, catering services are not permitted in smoking rooms.
  • Establishments that allow smoking: Small cafés and restaurants can apply for a license to continue to receive smokers.

Only persons whose work contract stipulates that they have agreed to work in a smoking room are allowed to do so. The law therefore creates a risk that certain workers in difficult financial situations may feel pressurized to give their consent.     

Source: ‘Protection against passive smoking in the workplace’ (French: Protection contre le tabagisme passif sur les lieux de travail), a document produced by the Swiss Association for Smoking Prevention.

Cantons: Provisions for stricter rules

The cantons are free to enact stricter health protection regulations. Several cantons have therefore decided not to authorize any establishments to allow smoking, and only to allow smoking rooms with no catering services. Please refer to the website of the Swiss Association for Smoking Prevention for more information.

What should you do if a colleague smokes at work, despite the regulations in place?

You can contact the cantonal prevention centres whose staff members can direct you to the work inspection authorities for the canton.
Source: ‘Protection against passive smoking in the workplace’ (French: Protection contre le tabagisme passif sur les lieux de travail), a document produced by the Swiss Association for Smoking Prevention.