Second-Hand Smoke Damage is Immediate, Dramatic
> 5/5/2008 1:46:34 PM

Asking a smoker to "put it out" in a public space may not seem like the friendliest gesture, but research increasingly shows it to be a very reasonable public health request. We've long known that the damage inflicted by smoking is not limited to the person holding the cigarette. Studies of individuals working in confined smoke-friendly spaces have demonstrated how these toxic fumes damage cardiovascular functions over time even when they're not directly inhaled. But a new study has produced an even more damning portrait of the way second-hand smoke affects the system - the damage is dramatic and it happens with alarming speed.

The American Lung Association estimates that nearly 50,000 non-smokers die of tobacco-related illness every year due purely to second-hand exposure, and the new study makes that initially shocking number more believable. Sponsored by the American College of Cardiology, the study demonstrates that spending a mere 30 minutes in an atmosphere designed to emulate that of a smoky bar leads to alarming changes in the bodies of healthy non-smoking subjects. And it isn't just a lingering smell or momentary shortness of breath.

10 non-smoking subjects between the ages of 29 and 31 were exposed to a very carefully managed smoky environment for a period of 30 minutes. Various measures were taken before and after this exposure using ultrasound technology and other measures specifically intended to assess the state of each subject's vascular functions: the condition of the blood and its ability to flow throughout the body. These measures were repeated several times within a 24-hour post-exposure period to create a longitudinal model of the smoke's effects on the body. In order to control the study, researchers also repeated the procedure in a smoke-free environment on a different day. The stunning results consisted most prominently of a notable degree of damage to the blood vessels. Ultrasound readings and blood tests revealed slight injuries to the interior walls of the arteries along with the detectable presence of tobacco-related toxins in the blood itself. And the findings didn't end there.

The smell of tobacco smoke famously remains to taint a space long after the last cigarette has been put out. In the same way, smoke also impairs the body's restorative mechanisms to the point that it cannot repair itself efficiently. The blood vessel injuries noted in this study remained visible 24 hours after inital measurements due largely to the compromised efficiency of the endothelial progenitor cells (EPC), a class of stem cell that forms in the bone marrow and moves through the bloodstream to assist in the repair of the vessels themselves. This finding serves as a great micro-illustration of the extensive damage that longtime smoking causes to the cardiovascular system.

Researchers emphasize that we still don't completely understand the mechanisms by which tobacco progressively destroys the human body. But, as this study makes painfully clear, we know more than enough not only to warn against the dangers of smoking and prevent the sale of tobacco to minors but to outlaw its indoor public use altogether. One researcher claims that "there is about a 20 percent drop in hospital admissions for heart attacks when cities and states pass laws mandating smokefree workplaces, restaurants and bars." Even smokers' rights advocates should agree to greater degree of prohibition after reading studies like this one.

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