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Smoking In Cars

It’s about now that a number of us start wavering and even cracking a bit when it comes to New Year resolutions, especially if that resolution involved giving up a bad habit or breaking an addiction, such as smoking. So here’s a bit of research to act as an extra incentive to help you keep that resolution and give up smoking – hang in there!


A lot of people try to cut down gradually by limiting the places where they let themselves smoke, and for a lot of people, the one place they let themselves smoking is in the car when they’re driving. They promise themselves that they won’t touch a cigarette unless they’re driving. However, if you regularly have passengers in the car, especially if those passengers are children, you might want to rethink the wisdom of this.


Recently, a research paper has been published by Tobacco Control (part of the British Medical Journal stable) looking at just how much the passengers in the back seat of a car are affected by second-hand smoke when the driver is having just a little wee cigarette, even when the windows were down. It was quite a simple experiment that was looking at two things, but the one that will interest most of us is how much the passengers in the back seat were affected (the other thing the researchers were looking at was how long it takes for the body to produce all the “oh heck – I’ve been exposed to second-hand smoke” chemicals and how long they last).


It was quite a simple piece of research, really, but don’t try this one at home unless you are a doctor and you want to publish your findings and go through all the right ethical protocols. The hospital got a set of hire cars that permitted smoking, got a handful of volunteers that smoked and a handful of paid non-smoking volunteers. The smoker parked him/herself in the front seat of the car with the windows down as the car sat parked in the hospital car park, while the non-smoker sat in the back seat on the passenger side (i.e. as far away as possible from the smoker). The volunteers sat there for an hour, with the smoker lighting up a cigarette every twenty minutes (he/she went through three cigarettes in the hour). Then the smoker went off home while the volunteer stayed in the hospital for 24 hours giving blood and pee samples every so often (presumably the volunteer was fed as well). They also stuck a series of air quality monitors around the inside of the car to see how much smoke hung about inside.

The results? About three to four hours after being exposed to the second-hand smoke in the car, even with the windows down, the non-smoking volunteers had levels that would have been high enough to trigger asthma attacks in adults with this condition, to say nothing of what the levels would have been like in children (the experiment wasn’t done with children for ethical reasons). And there was a significant level of the “help, I’ve been exposed to a carcinogen” chemical associated with second-hand smoke.


To be fair, the results weren’t exactly the same in each subject, but this could have been because three different hire cars were used (a Ford Taurus, a Pontiac Grand Prix and several Chevrolet Malibus – it was a US study). The cars had already had a dollop of second-hand smoke and the cars with more surface area inside would have exposed the volunteer to more gunk. This might be something to bear in mind if you are looking at buying a second-hand car that once belonged to a smoker and you don’t smoke: call in a friendly upholstery cleaner to give the car the once-over to remove as much gunk as possible (the car will smell better, too). Secondly, if you think that because your car is larger (say, an MPV such as a Mitsubishi Grandis) and you don’t smoke when the kids are in it, they won’t pick up as much second-hand smoke compared to what they’d cop in, say, a Suzuki Swift Sport, you’re wrong. There’s more surface area inside a bigger vehicle, which actually means more exposure rather than less.


The other thing that the researchers pointed out was that the cars were stationary for an hour during the experiment, and this isn’t quite like normal conditions. Even in the worst traffic jams, you’re not stationary for an hour. However, if the windows are down and you’re driving along, some of the smoke will certainly blow out, but other nasties put out by the surrounding traffic in an urban area will blow in. And if you shut the windows… well, let’s not go there!


The moral of the story? Well, quitting smoking is the best bet. If you are trying to cut down and are doing so by limiting yourself to only smoking in the car, go one step further and only smoke when you’re alone in the car. This goes double if you’ve got children. If you’re not a smoker and you want to minimise your exposure, avoid second-hand cars that have been owned by smokers or at least give them a good clean once you’ve bought… or just buy a new car!