In 1976, the first lawsuit involving second hand smoke was reported and since then, this type of litigation has increased both in number and scope and with increasing success.
While it is common to lose the cases in a new area where the law eventually evolves, litigants and their lawyers who later bring similar cases can learn from those previous, unsuccessful cases. It is now apparent that the judiciary worldwide has begun to recognise the need to protect the public from the serious health threat caused by exposure to second hand smoke.
In January 1998, Dr Abid M. Hanson, a non-smoker who suffered from asthma, died while on an Olympic Airways flight. He was in the company of his wife and three children.
Dr Hanson was not seated in the ‘smoking’ section of the plane, but was in a seat three rows ahead. However, considerable ambient smoke was present in the location where he was seated. The doctor’s wife made three impassioned requests to the flight attendant to move her husband to an area further away from the smoke produced by the smoking passengers. The flight attendant adamantly refused.
This case was brought to court as a wrongful death, involving an accident on a plane. The court ruled that the flight attendant’s refusal to move the doctor was a wilful action and was the primary cause of his death. Court awarded substantial amounts of money to the family.
What it is
Second hand smoke is defined as smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke breathed out by smokers. It is thought that secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic, and about 70 can cause cancer.
There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and the sudden infant death syndrome (SID).
Smoking during pregnancy also contributes substantially to low birth weight of babies and infant deaths annually.
Chemicals in secondhand smoke appear to affect the brain in ways that interfere with its regulation of the infants’ breathing. Infants who die from the SID syndrome have higher concentrations of nicotine in their lungs and higher levels of cotinine than infants who die from other causes.
Some of the health conditions caused by second hand smoke in adults include coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. Second hand smoke is a leading cause of premature deaths from heart disease among non-smokers. Non-smokers, who are exposed to second hand smoke at home or at work, increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25-30 per cent.
Second hand smoke increases the risk of stroke by 20-30 per cent and is, therefore, responsible for a high number of deaths from stoke.
Breathing second hand smoke can have immediate adverse effects on blood and blood vessels, increasing the risk of having a heart attack. Breathing second hand smoke interferes with the normal functioning of the heart, blood and vascular systems in ways that increase the risk of having a heart attack.
Even a brief exposure to second hand smoke can damage the lining of blood vessels and cause the platelets in the blood to become sticky, thereby triggering a heart attack.
In a landmark case, a judge ruled that the “evidence is clear and overwhelming that cigarette smoke contaminates and pollutes the air, creating a health hazard, not merely to the smoker but to all those around him or her who must rely on the same air supply.
The right of an individual to risk his or her life does not include the right to jeopardise the health of those who must remain around him or her in order to perform properly their jobs.”
And in 1986, the Surgeon General of the United States of America made a report on the health consequences of involuntary smoking and concluded that “involuntary smoking is a cause of disease, including lung cancer, in healthy non-smokers and simple separation of smokers and non-smokers within the same airspace may reduce, but does not eliminate exposure of non-smokers to environmental tobacco smoke.”
• Second hand smoke can cause serious health problems in older children. Studies show that older children whose parents smoke get sick more often.
• Their lungs grow less than children who do not breathe in second hand smoke, and they get more bronchitis and pneumonia.
• Wheezing and coughing are more common in children who breathe second hand smoke. Second hand smoke can trigger an asthma attack in a child.
• Children whose parents smoke around them get more frequent ear infections.