Watch out for lingering smoke that damages health and environment

Wang Yong
A special report to coincide with World No Tobacco Day highlights the dangers of invisible second-hand smoking that lingers long after the smoker has left the scene.
Wang Yong

When I see people smoking, I normally avoid contact with them. However, in the event of invisible second-hand smoke remaining in the air, no such precautions can be taken.

To mark the World No Tobacco Day, Shanghai released a special report today about the invisible smoke in the open air.

Local health authorities said the report, based on a survey carried out last year among people aged 15 years old and above, found that "lingering smoke in outdoor places has stood out as a new focal issue, despite an overall drop in the rate of public exposure to second-hand smoke."

Indeed, 51.5 percent of those polled reported being exposed to second-hand smoke in the previous year, a slight decrease from previous years. That has a lot to do with Shanghai's regulations on controlling smoking in public places, which took effect in 2010.

It was revised in 2017 to enhance the ban on public smoke, including in certain outdoor spaces such as those in schools and hospitals.

However, many people have been caught in recent years smoking in parks, at crossroads, and at subway entrances. They frequently smoke while walking, polluting the air as they move around.

A tricky part of this walking and smoking in public spaces is that the smoke often lingers in the air even after the smoker has left.

Late last night, a courier called me and told me to pick up a package he had just left at the front gate of our residential neighborhood. He couldn't bring it to my door because of pandemic prevention and control rules.

I hurried downstairs and jogged past lawns and trees in our well-shaded neighborhood, enjoying the cool scent of an early summer evening. But, just as I was approaching the front gate, a strong smell of tobacco could be felt in the air, even though I was wearing a face mask.

I didn't dare to take off my mask because there were so many people waiting to pick up their parcels at the gate, and the foul smell of smoke just stuck to it.

Looking around, I couldn't find a "perpetrator" – no one was smoking on the spot – but the foul air, tinged with a lingering nicotine odor, had not dissipated. You couldn't see the smoke, but you could feel it, and you were completely engulfed in it.

I held my breath, grabbed my package, and darted away. I removed my mask as soon as I arrived at a riverfront mini-meadow with no other people in sight. I took a big breath and waved my mask back and forth to rid it of the smoke.

Since the citywide lockdown that started on April 1, I've noticed such lingering smoke multiple times in my area. One day, I took a less-traveled path where I was the only one walking, yet a foul smell of smoke suddenly hit me in the face. Someone must have smoked and then gone, but the awful smell lingered.

Contracting contagious infections

In fact, Shanghai's first survey on lingering smoke was conducted in 2020, and it discovered that more than 90 percent of residents had complained about it. Moreover, roughly 33 percent of those polled advocated for a smoking ban in all outdoor locations with a large crowd. Residential communities certainly count as such locations, where neighbors gather and converse.

The city is raising this topic again today, coinciding with this year's World No Tobacco Day. The timing is key since today's focus on the dangers of lingering smoke comes before the city's gradual return to normalcy on June 1 – following a citywide lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

People who smoke less, especially in crowded situations, are less likely to contract infectious infections like the novel coronavirus. Because the virus spreads through respiratory systems, a smoker who places an electronic or paper-rolled cigarette near his or her nose risks being infected.

An inhaler of such second-hand smoke who may continue to wear a face mask may be forced to adjust or remove it for fresh air. It's also dangerous.

All of this isn't merely to keep us safe from future pandemics. Second-hand smoke, including invisible smoke, is harmful to our general health.

In an article published today, the World Health Organization stated, "Tobacco kills over 8 million people every year and destroys our environment, further harming human health, through its cultivation, production, distribution, consumption and post-consumer waste."

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