By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Tobacco smoke contains over 4000 chemicals. Over 60 of these are known to cause cancer in humans.
  • Tobacco smoking is highly addictive, and 80% of smokers start smoking before they’re 18. Some young people even experience symptoms of tobacco dependence within a day of first inhaling a cigarette.

Second-hand smoke is the smoke you breathe in from other people’s cigarettes, cigars or pipes. It can cause serious health problems for your child. Breathing in second-hand smoke is sometimes known as ‘passive smoking’.

What you need to know

Quit Victoria defines second-hand smoke as being made up of ‘mainstream’ smoke, which the smoker breathes out, and ‘sidestream’ smoke, which drifts from the end of a burning cigarette.

Children most commonly come into contact with second-hand smoke when their parents, family and friends smoke.

But the problem isn’t just smoking around children – second-hand smoke hangs around for up to five hours. It gets left on furniture, carpets and clothing. This means babies and children are still exposed to it even after adults have finished their cigarettes.

Infants and children are particularly at risk from second-hand smoke because they have smaller airways and less mature immune systems. Their smaller airways mean they breathe faster, so they breathe in relatively more second-hand smoke – and its harmful chemicals – than an adult would in the same amount of time. 

Health risks linked with passive smoking

Passive smoking dramatically increases health risks for babies, children and teenagers. Studies show that children exposed to second-hand smoke are at an increased risk of premature death and disease and are more likely to have thickening, irritation and inflammation of their airways.

Second-hand smoke can impair a baby’s breathing and heart rate, which can put them at a higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). If parents smoke during pregnancy and after their baby is born, their baby’s SIDS risk increases. If one parent smokes, the risk of SIDS doubles. If both parents smoke, the risk doubles again.

If children are exposed to second-hand smoke, they’re more likely to develop a range of lung and other health problems, including:

There’s also evidence that exposure to second-hand smoke can increase the likelihood of behaviour problems and learning difficulties.

If children live in a household where one or more adults smoke, they’re exposed to greater health risks. They need to go to the doctor more often. The chance that they will take up smoking in adolescence doubles.

Protecting your child from second-hand smoke

The most important way to protect your child from second-hand smoke is to quit smoking. This greatly reduces your child’s exposure to second-hand smoke. It also gives your child a positive non-smoking role model.

If you’re not quite ready to quit, or someone else in your home is the one smoking, there are still things you can do to reduce your child’s exposure to the smoke. One of the most important things you can do is to make sure no-one smokes in front of your child. This means you’ll have to do it away from your child, and that you’ll need to ask other family members, friends and visitors to do the same. Explain to them that simply blowing smoke away from your child doesn’t protect him from the harmful effects of smoke. Also make sure you never smoke in an enclosed area near your child.

When visiting friends, or leaving children in the care of someone else, try to make sure the environment is smoke-free.

Never smoke in a car that carries children. Opening the car window isn’t enough to stop smoke affecting children. In most Australian states, it’s illegal to smoke in a car that carries a child under the age of 18. This legislation is backed by the evidence that second-hand smoke is particularly harmful to children. Hefty on-the-spot fines are enforced if you’re caught smoking in a car that carries children.

Make a commitment that your home and car will be smoke-free at all times. Insist that no-one smokes around your child. Every child has the right to grow up in a smoke-free environment.

Seek help

If you need more advice about quitting smoking or the effects that second-hand smoke has on your child, there are services, support and resources available. You can start by talking to your GP, another health professional, or by calling Quitline on 131 848.

Video Second-hand smoke and SIDS

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Strong evidence shows that exposure to smoke harms babies, and that smoking during pregnancy and after birth increases the risk of SIDS. The link between SIDS and smoking is strong even when parents smoke away from their baby.

This video explains that one important precaution you can take against SIDS is keeping the smokes outside and away from your baby all the time, not just when baby’s sleeping. The video also includes tips on safe sleeping, sleeping baby on back, sleeping baby at the end of the cot, avoiding a flat head and sleeping arrangements.

You might also like to check out our illustrated guide to reducing SUDI and SIDS risk.