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Pediatrics. 2018 Jan;141(Suppl 1):S63-S74. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-1026J.

Airborne Nicotine, Secondhand Smoke, and Precursors to Adolescent Smoking.

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Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montréal, Quebec, Canada;
St Mary's Hospital Center, Montréal, Quebec, Canada.
College of Nursing, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
Environmental Health Sciences Division, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, California; and.
Centre de recherche du Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.



Secondhand smoke (SHS) directly increases exposure to airborne nicotine, tobacco's main psychoactive substance. When exposed to SHS, nonsmokers inhale 60% to 80% of airborne nicotine, absorb concentrations similar to those absorbed by smokers, and display high levels of nicotine biomarkers. Social modeling, or observing other smokers, is a well-established predictor of smoking during adolescence. Observing smokers also leads to increased pharmacological exposure to airborne nicotine via SHS. The objective of this study is to investigate whether greater exposure to airborne nicotine via SHS increases the risk for smoking initiation precursors among never-smoking adolescents.


Secondary students (N = 406; never-smokers: n = 338, 53% girls, mean age = 12.9, SD = 0.4) participated in the AdoQuest II longitudinal cohort. They answered questionnaires about social exposure to smoking (parents, siblings, peers) and known smoking precursors (eg, expected benefits and/or costs, SHS aversion, smoking susceptibility, and nicotine dependence symptoms). Saliva and hair samples were collected to derive biomarkers of cotinine and nicotine. Adolescents wore a passive monitor for 1 week to measure airborne nicotine.


Higher airborne nicotine was significantly associated with greater expected benefits (R2 = 0.024) and lower expected costs (R2 = 0.014). Higher social exposure was significantly associated with more temptation to try smoking (R2 = 0.025), lower aversion to SHS (R2 = 0.038), and greater smoking susceptibility (R2 = 0.071). Greater social exposure was significantly associated with more nicotine dependence symptoms; this relation worsened with higher nicotine exposure (cotinine R2 = 0.096; airborne nicotine R2 = 0.088).


Airborne nicotine exposure via SHS is a plausible risk factor for smoking initiation during adolescence. Public health implications include limiting airborne nicotine through smoking bans in homes and cars, in addition to stringent restrictions for e-cigarettes.

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