Patient Education

Healthclicks Newsletters

Heart Care

November 2013

Secondhand Smoke: Harmful to Your Heart

Smoking bans are lighting up across the U.S. Since 2000, more than half of all states and numerous municipalities have enacted laws that limit smoking in restaurants, bars, and public places. A recent study shows such changes may be a boon to heart health, particularly for nonsmokers.

Smoking-ban benefits

In the journal PLOS One, researchers found that smoking bans may help prevent heart attacks. Using a health registry for the population of northeastern Spain, they counted the number of heart attacks over a 7-year period. This timeframe spanned 4 years before and 3 years after a countrywide smoking ban.

What did they find? Heart attacks dropped by 11% following the smoke-free legislation. Those who benefited most: women, older adults, and passive smokers — those exposed to secondhand smoke. These groups suffered significantly fewer heart attacks after the ban.

The results echo past research on tobacco smoke and heart disease. For example, one study asked more than 1,700 people who never smoked about their exposure to secondhand smoke. Researchers then tested participants for coronary artery calcium (CAC). This buildup of calcium in the arteries can predict future heart disease. People exposed to more secondhand smoke had higher levels of CAC.

Secondhand heart effects

Because you inhale it, tobacco smoke — even if secondhand — directly damages your lungs. The process doesn't stop there, though. The burning byproduct of cigarettes, cigars, and pipes affects your entire body, even your heart.

Tobacco smoke contains many harmful chemicals. Those that are especially toxic to the heart include arsenic and cadmium. When inhaled, these chemicals travel into your lungs and enter your bloodstream. Your arteries then transport the toxins throughout your body. Over time, repeated exposure can lead to health problems such as cancer, respiratory infections, and coronary heart disease.

Tobacco smoke also alters the consistency of blood. It makes the blood's platelets become sticky. Platelets are blood cells that make blood clot. This change makes dangerous blood clots more likely. As a result, people who smoke or those who inadvertently breathe smoke in face a higher risk for a heart attack. Nonsmokers with other heart concerns, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, are especially prone to the dangers of secondhand smoke.


Shunning Secondhand Smoke

You can’t avoid secondhand smoke by simply opening a window or using a fan. And sitting in the nonsmoking section of a restaurant won’t protect you either. Follow these tips to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke:

  • Opt for places that are 100% smoke-free. That includes restaurants, day-care centers, and other businesses.

  • Prohibit smoking in your home or car. Designating one room in your home for smoking won’t help. Smoke travels easily.

  • Ask people to refrain from smoking around you and your family.

  • Support smokers you know who are trying to quit.


If you're a smoker, join the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout on November 21. Quitting will help protect your family from secondhand smoke. Watch this video for more about how to stop smoking. 


Online resources

American Cancer Society

American Heart Association



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