does it help to hold your breath to avoid second hand smoke?
January 19, 2008 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I have never smoked in my life, and with every year my attitude and tolerance for smoking becomes worse and less (sorry, all smokers out there!). In the last little while, I realized that I actually unconsciously hold my breath every time I pass someone who smokes in the street. Does this significantly do anything in terms of benefiting me and helping to avoid the dangers of second-hand smoke, or am I just fooling myself?
posted by esolo to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Probably depends on how long you hold your breath, and if you inhaled before you entered the radius of the smoke. If it's any consolation, I do the same thing. I think it can really only be considered second hand smoke if you can tangibly sense that you inhaled a bit. Otherwise, there's really no conclusive data showing lung disorders versus amount of diffused tobacco smoke.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:24 PM on January 19, 2008

Well, if the smell of smoke annoys you more than the feeling of holding your breath, then it's absolutely benefiting you — it's keeping you serene and happy.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:26 PM on January 19, 2008

The Surgeon General says "there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke". Whether holding your breath as you pass a smoker is "significant" is another question, but it can't hurt.
posted by smackfu at 8:28 PM on January 19, 2008

Ive always wondered if this strategy was making thing worse. When you stop holding your breath you do a big inhale deep into your lungs. Normally you would be doing shallow breathing with lots of smoke around you, but deep breathing with less smoke around you could be just as bad, perhaps worse.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:31 PM on January 19, 2008

It's normal. Learn to accept it. I wish I were like you, instead I took up smoking and wish I were able to stop.
posted by parmanparman at 8:35 PM on January 19, 2008

i think you're fooling yourself. just think of all the other toxins you inhale on a daily basis. why breathe at all?
posted by brandz at 8:38 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hate the smell, so I breathe out slowly for the few seconds it takes to pass them. It's either that or I smell it for the next minute.
posted by Mikey-San at 8:45 PM on January 19, 2008

Do you go out of your way to take a nice heady inhalation of moldering flatulence? If no, then why would you question the normalcy of holding your breath around smoke? I do the same thing around strong perfume, fwiw.
posted by docpops at 8:48 PM on January 19, 2008

Unless you're passing a ton of smokers every single day, I find it hard to believe that it matters much.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:51 PM on January 19, 2008

A lot of modern medical knowledge and epidemiology regarding cancer and carcinogens makes the assumption that the rate of cancer caused by exposure to carcinogens is essentially proportional and that the curve can be extrapolated arbitraily far in both directions, high and low.

That's the basis for the quote above regarding the lack of "risk-free levels". That's also the reason that cyclamate was banned in the US. When given to rats at truly huge dosages, well beyond anything that was remotely possible for humans using it as an artificial sweetener, it caused a low level of tumors, and by the rules in place at the time that meant it had to be banned.

Canada didn't ban it, and there has been no sign of a statistically significant rise of cancer in Canada even though it's used widely there.

Some researchers think that the assumption of infinite extrapolation is itself wrong. The idea is that the disease we know of as "cancer" isn't "the formation of tumors". They argue that in fact normal people get tumors once in a while, but in a normal, healthy person the immune system destroys them.

According to this theory, the disease "cancer" is an immune failure, where a tumor doesn't get correctly identified and tromped on by the immune system. If that's the case, then they argue that very low levels of exposure to carcinogens truly represents no risk at all to normal people, because even if it does cause tumors the immune system will take care of them.

What we do know is that exposure to some carcinogens at sufficiently low levels does not cause a statistically detectable rise in cancer rates. "Second hand smoke" at sufficiently low levels is like that. The URL above is broken; this is right:
The U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that breathing even a little secondhand smoke poses a risk to your health.

Scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Breathing even a little secondhand smoke can be harmful to your health.
The "scientific evidence" they're talking about is that assumption of infinite extrapolation, which is controversial. But even if we accept that assumption, this statement begs a question.

There's no such thing as "risk-free" anything. You can die in your sleep. (Quite a few people every year do.) The question is not whether the risk associated with any activity is zero; that's never the case. The question is whether the risk is non-negligible -- and the evidence I've seen says that below a certain threshold of exposure, the risk is indeed negligible. Not zero, but insignificant.

So my opinion: Does it help to hold your breath? Not really. On the other hand, it doesn't harm anything either. If it reassures you psychologically, you may as well continue doing it. But it won't affect your risk of cancer to any significant extent.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:53 PM on January 19, 2008 [10 favorites]

I don't know a lot about the studies on passive smoking, but are there really actual health risks associates with occasionally passing someone smoking on the street? That seems like it's got to be a pretty insanely small health risk.

(Though I'm all w. those who say, sure, hold your breath if you don't like the smell).
posted by ManInSuit at 9:12 PM on January 19, 2008

You could faint and hurt yourself if you hold your breath too long, or if you do so during or immediately after physical exertion. That risk may well completely dwarf any increased risk from the smoke inhalation. Or it may not. There's probably a statistic out there on how many people injure themselves as a direct consequence of breath-holding, just as there are statistics on most other mundane activities, but I have no idea of where to look.

My advice is to assume the risks balance exactly and go by your personal preference.
posted by topynate at 9:19 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

One reason I miss smoking (quit very recently) is watching non-smokers freak out around me. Hilarious.

Seriously, though, as much as I hate to admit it, Steven is on the money. It probably has no physical benefit, but a psychological benefit is reason enough I guess.

(Maybe if I stop showering...)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:42 AM on January 20, 2008

There's a third benefit, I like to think, which will help us all in health terms in the long run, which is that there's no harm in making small indications to smokers to remind them how unpleasant their habit makes life for people around them — including visibly holding your breath. (Being a relisher of schadenfreude, I kinda respect Joseph Gurl's attitude, but I don't think it's the majority position among smokers.)

One of the sheer joys of 2007 in the UK was watching as smoking in public became exposed as the overtly hostile activity that it is, as sullen smokers affected by the ban in pubs and restaurants became compelled to stand soaking in the rain as they gasped down a cigarette as fast as possible. I feel no shame, and indeed some real enjoyment, in finding ways to remind smokers that I pass that they're spreading body odor and carcinogens. The trick, of course, is not to actually be irritated by it inside, but only to display irritation, otherwise it makes life less fun instead of more so.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:23 AM on January 20, 2008

[a few comments removed - "get over it" is really not a helpful answer to this question]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:43 AM on January 20, 2008

I don't usually hold my breath as I pass a smoker any more than I do when I pass someone who is obviously sick with sneezing and coughing. But I do try to pass them as quickly as possible if the wind is blowing the smoke into my face.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:18 AM on January 20, 2008

I do this sometimes around diesel buses. I don't understand how there are no emissions regulations on these things.

But that's a cloud of smoke, not comparable to a single cigarette, I don't think. Usually when I'm around smokers, it's the cut it with a knife scenario. I can't remember the last time I smelled someone's cigarette on the street.

I'm with game warden...I remember when we were told that if they banned cigarettes in bars, no one would go to bars and they would all close down. Didn't seem to work out that way.
posted by sully75 at 6:43 AM on January 20, 2008

There's a third benefit, I like to think, which will help us all in health terms in the long run, which is that there's no harm in making small indications to smokers to remind them how unpleasant their habit makes life for people around them — including visibly holding your breath.

As a personal datapoint, this is not beneficial. If someone asks me to not smoke/aim elsewhere and is generally civil about it, I have no problems with complying. Passive aggressive exaggurated coughs and visibly holding your breath just antagonises.

And yes, I concur with the lack of health benefits for holding your breath (especially if you live in a predominantly urban environment) and agree that the psychological benefit is worth it. But again, please don't make it into a public act of defiance.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:04 AM on January 20, 2008

Esolo, I also hold my breath when passing smokers AND heavily perfumed people. I only do this, however, if I can pass them quickly; can't hold my breath for too long. (Disclamier: I'm an ex-smoker who used to practically bathe in cologne to mask the smoke smell.)

I wish there were a magic wand or mask I could use when stuck in a lengthy elevator ride with someone who reeks of old, unemptied ashtray! I feel the urge to puke, but so far have managed to hold it down. And I've tried holding my breath, but because of the length of the ride, I get dizzy and nearly pass out. Not breathing through my nose helps a bit, but then I look like a slack-jawed ridge-running mouth-breather. So I'm wondering what to do when stuck in this situation.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 1:29 PM on January 20, 2008

There really isn't a big risk associated with this. If you think about it, how did we determine whether smoking was risky in the first place? Comparing smokers to nonsmokers-- most of whom, back then, were massively exposed to passive smoke. If passive smoke were seriously bad for you, you wouldn't have seen the huge difference. And there is a huge difference-- factors of 10-30 times increased risk.

Whereas, if I recall correctly, secondhand smoke in general gives you something like, maybe 20-40% increased risk? Generally, epidemiologists don't get concerned til a risk is 200% or more, unless you are talking a huge population (which is why some do regarding secondhand smoke: dangerous on population level, not so much to any particular person).

The second-hand smoke studies that find a measurable risk are all about people who are in smoky bars all night as employees or people who are married to smokers.

However, there *is* a definite risk associated with worrying about risk, ironically. Stress hormones can really fuck you up.
posted by Maias at 7:35 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Relevant Link

(very brief summary: for lung cancer at least, the increase of risk is 2%, not 20%.)
posted by herbaliser at 2:27 PM on January 21, 2008

« Older Can I put a drop cap on an italic paragraph?   |   Excel texbox madness. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.