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Second-Hand and Third-Hand Smoke and Vapour


Smoke from tobacco and vapour from vaping products are put into 3 categories:

First-hand smoke or vapour – inhaled by the person who smokes or vapes

Second-hand smoke or vapour – smoke or vapour that is exhaled (mainstream smoke or vapour) or the smoke that comes from the end of a burning cigarette (sidestream smoke)

Third-hand smoke or vapour – the residue and gases left on clothes, cars, or in a room after someone smokes or vapes

Second-hand smoke and vapour

Tobacco smoke has more than 7,000 chemicals. At least 69 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. When tobacco smoke is inhaled, the body quickly absorbs these chemicals that cause changes to cells in the body. These cell changes can lead to serious health problems like cancer.

Second-hand tobacco smoke causes:

  • changes to your heart and blood vessels as soon as you have contact
  • heart disease (The risk is about 25% higher in those living with someone who smokes.)
  • lung cancer (In Canada, more than 300 people who don’t smoke die each year from lung cancer related to second-hand smoke.)

Less is known about the effects of second-hand vapour from products like electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). We do know that second-hand vapour can have nicotine and other chemicals that may be harmful.

Babies, children, and second-hand smoke and vapour

Babies and young children have a higher risk of health effects from harmful chemicals, like nicotine, in second-hand smoke and vapour. Nicotine and other chemicals are harmful during pregnancy. These chemicals are also harmful to babies and children because their bodies are still developing.

Women who don’t smoke but who have contact with second-hand smoke, may also pass harmful chemicals to their baby through breastmilk.

Having contact with second-hand tobacco smoke may cause:

  • a low birth weight
  • a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • a serious lung infection, like bronchitis or pneumonia
  • coughing, mucous, wheezing, being short of breath, and other lung and airway (respiratory) problems
  • ear infections
  • asthma attacks that happen more often and are more serious than attacks in other children with asthma

Third-hand smoke and vapour

Third-hand smoke and vapour is the residue from smoking and vaping that attaches to surfaces like walls, floors, carpeting, drapes, and furniture. This residue can last for months on indoor surfaces.

Nicotine reacts with nitrous acid in the burning tobacco and forms cancer-causing chemicals. Nicotine is found in all types of tobacco smoke, including third-hand smoke. Third-hand vapour may also have nicotine when nicotine is added to e-cigarettes.

Harmful chemicals from tobacco smoke are absorbed by your body’s cells when they are inhaled or swallowed. They can also get into your body when your skin has contact with surfaces in the home, car, or other spaces where smoking and vaping are allowed.

Babies and children have a higher risk of contact with the harmful chemicals in third-hand smoke and vapour because they breathe faster, crawl on carpets and floors, explore surfaces with their hands, and put things into their mouths.

Policies that protect you from second-hand and third-hand smoke and vapour

Through Alberta’s Tobacco and Smoking Reduction Act (TSRA), all public and work places in the province are smoke-free. The TSRA also doesn’t allow smoking on patios where food is served or within 5 metres of a doorway, window, or air intake of a public place or workplace (including enclosed parking garages and work vehicles).

In 2014, the Act was updated to ban smoking in vehicles when children and youth under the age of 18 are in the vehicle.

Most places treat e-cigarettes the same as tobacco cigarettes. This means they can only be used in specific areas where smoking is allowed. Smoking e-cigarettes indoors or in vehicles may put others in contact with vapour. Children and pregnant women may be especially at risk of health effects from second- and third-hand vapour.

Protect yourself and others

It’s important to remember that opening windows in buildings or vehicles may get rid of the smell, but it won’t protect you from contact with smoke and vapour.

There’s no safe level of contact with tobacco smoke or vapour. The only way to protect yourself and others is to be in places that are smoke-free and vapour-free.

See Health Canada’s guide for information on how to Make Your Home and Car Smoke-Free.

Please note that “tobacco” on this page does not include tobacco that is used for traditional and sacred reasons.


Current as of: August 29, 2019

Author: Tobacco Reduction Program, Alberta Health Services