Living with a Smoker May Smother Your Psyche

A new study links secondhand smoke to anxiety, depression, and other types of mental distress.

June 10, 2010

Mood booster: Keeping smoke away may be good for your mental health.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It’s no wonder smoking bans are becoming increasingly common in both public and private spaces in this country. Secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,400 deaths from lung cancer, and as many as 69,000 deaths from heart disease each year, according to the American Lung Association. What’s more, 35 percent of children in this country—21 million all told—live in homes where residents or visitors smoke on a regular basis. Now, for the first time, there's evidence that secondhand smoke can harm the mind as well as the body.

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THE DETAILS: As reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, UK researchers explored secondhand smoke's effects on mental health by analyzing 5,560 nonsmokers and 2,595 smokers. The researchers categorized the subjects into five groupings according to nicotine exposure—from low exposure to heavy smoker. The researchers then assessed the participants’ psychological status using the established 12-item General Health Questionnaire. After adjusting for all suspected confounding factors, the researchers discovered a dose-response effect regarding secondhand smoke exposure and psychological distress: the higher the exposure, the higher the distress.

WHAT IT MEANS: We may be just beginning to understand how exposure to cigarette smoke affects our mood. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate an association between SHS [secondhand smoke] exposure and mental health in a representative sample of the general population,” write the study authors. And, of course, the smokers themselves are likely experiencing even more unpleasant effects than people breathing the smoke secondhand. Psychological distress was apparent at low levels of secondhand smoke exposure, but was strongest in the smokers, according to the study.

Here's what you need to know about the effects of secondhand smoke on your psyche:

• The more secondhand smoke you breathe, the bigger the risk. The effect was strongest in people with a smoker in the household. “We saw some distress even in the lowest levels of secondhand-smoke exposure, but the distress became statistically significant in the highest exposure group,” says study coauthor Mark Hamer, PhD, a senior research fellow in the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London. “These high-exposure people lived with a smoker, so they got constant exposure.”

• The effects of secondhand smoke could send you to the hospital. “We determined this using the General Health Questionnaire, which measures levels of depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, and general negative mood,” says Hamer. And the effects of secondhand smoke may have a noticeable effect on mental health. “During an average follow-up period of 5.9 years, we also found an association between high SHS [secondhand smoke] exposure and psychiatric-related hospital visits," Hamer says. As mentioned, smokers reported the highest psychological distress levels.

• Lowering your exposure is your best defense. If you live with a smoker, or are otherwise getting constant exposure to cigarette smoke, you need to enact a no-smoking policy. "Psychological distress became statistically significant for the high-SHS-exposure group, in other words people who lived with a smoker,” says Hamer. “So, based on our study, if you live with a smoker, you should simply ask him or her not to smoke inside." Be sure to offer whatever support and help your future ex-smoker needs to quit; see our smoking stories for tips. "It’s also important to maintain good mental and physical health in other ways, such as by getting regular exercise, keeping alcohol intake moderate, and eating a healthy diet,” Hamer notes. Doing so will help defend your mind and body from the ill effects of tobacco smoke.

Tags: smoking