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Circulation. 1991 Jan;83(1):1-12.

Passive smoking and heart disease. Epidemiology, physiology, and biochemistry.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0124.


The evidence that ETS increases risk of death from heart disease is similar to that which existed in 1986 when the US Surgeon General concluded that ETS caused lung cancer in healthy nonsmokers. There are 10 epidemiological studies, conducted in a variety of locations, that reflect about a 30% increase in risk of death from ischemic heart disease or myocardial infarction among nonsmokers living with smokers. The larger studies also demonstrate a significant dose-response effect, with greater exposure to ETS associated with greater risk of death from heart disease. These epidemiological studies are complemented by a variety of physiological and biochemical data that show that ETS adversely affects platelet function and damages arterial endothelium in a way that increases the risk of heart disease. Moreover, ETS, in realistic exposures, also exerts significant adverse effects on exercise capability of both healthy people and those with heart disease by reducing the body's ability to deliver and utilize oxygen. In animal experiments, ETS also depresses cellular respiration at the level of mitochondria. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ETS also accelerate, and may initiate, the development of atherosclerotic plaque. Of note, the cardiovascular effects of ETS appear to be different in nonsmokers and smokers. Nonsmokers appear to be more sensitive to ETS than do smokers, perhaps because some of the affected physiological systems are sensitive to low doses of the compounds in ETS, then saturate, and also perhaps because of physiological adaptions smokers undergo as a result of long-term exposure to the toxins in cigarette smoke. In any event, these findings indicate that, for cardiovascular disease, it is incorrect to compute "cigarette equivalents" for passive exposure to ETS and then to extrapolate the effects of this exposure on nonsmokers from the effects of direct smoking on smokers. These results suggest that heart disease is an important consequence of exposure to ETS. The combination of epidemiological studies with demonstration of physiological changes with exposure to ETS, together with biochemical evidence that elements of ETS have significant adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, leads to the conclusion that ETS causes heart disease. This increase in risk translates into about 10 times as many deaths from ETS-induced heart disease as lung cancer; these deaths contribute greatly to the estimated 53,000 deaths annually from passive smoking. This toll makes passive smoking the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States today, behind active smoking and alcohol.

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