Environmental Tobacco Smoke

Passive smoking or second hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) can be a serious health issue in some workplaces.  How big an issue is passive smoking in your workplace? Inhaling other people's smoke can have serious health effects, both short term and long term. If passive smoking is an issue at your workplace, then, as an elected OHS rep, there is something you can do about it.

The Victorian Government has now introduced wide ranging legislation prohibiting smoking in almost all indoor premises and workplaces, and progressively, any food outlets, both indoor and outdoor.  Nevertheless, there may still be some workers who are exposed to the hazard of passive smoking.  (see The Legal Situation below)

Just like other hazards, this should be controlled at the source - this means making the workplace smoke free. Under Section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004)  the employer has a legal duty to "provide and maintain, so far as is practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health." A smoky workplace is certainly not a safe and healthy workplace.

As the OHS rep you have the right to take OHS issues to your employer and seek to have them resolved. You have this right under Section 73 of the 2004 Act. If you are not satisfied that your employer is making a genuine attempt to eliminate or reduce the risks associated with passive smoking, then you should contact your union, or the VTHC OHS Unit for further advice.

Advice for reps

  • Identify any areas where people are allowed to smoke in your workplace/designated work group.
  • Identify how many people work these areas.
  • Discuss the issue with them, including the potential effects of exposure to passive smoke (see More information, below).
  • Encourage your members to report any effects they may be suffering, such as coughs, asthma, etc.
  • Approach your employer to attempt to resolve the issue using the preferred order of control. Under Section 73 of the Act, your employer must try to resolve any OHS issue that is raised by an ohs rep. While it may not be possible to eliminate passive smoking immediately, this should be the goal. In the meantime, individual workers' exposure to passive smoking can be reduced in a number of ways.
  • If you are not satisfied that your employer is making a genuine attempt to resolve the issue, there are a number of things you can do. The first step is to contact your union.

Going smoke-free does not hurt business

Some employers, particularly in the hospitality sector, believed that banning smoking would be harmful to the business - but this was not the New Zealand experience.  12 months after the ban on smoking in bars in New Zealand, a report found no downturn in bar retail sales, tourism or employment. This is contrary to the predictions of industry opponents, who had claimed that smokefree bars legislation would have serious economic consequences for the hospitality industry. Workplaces in New Zealand, including bars, restaurants, clubs and casinos were required to be smokefree inside from 10 December 2004. The report, published by the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, considers a number of indicators post implementation of the ban, including smoking behaviour, public opinion, economic data, and compliance levels. 

Other issues

Visiting clients in their home

Workers visiting clients in their home are not directly covered by the Tobacco Act.  However, employers should take action to ensure that these workers are protected when visiting clients in their homes, and OHS reps should be raising this as an issue if it affects members of their DWGs.

While an employer cannot control conditions in people's homes, and cannot prevent individuals taking part in a legal activity in their homes, employees also have the right not to be exposed to environmental tobacco smoke.  Reps should seek agreement with the employer that they will introduce guidance on this issue.  In some cases it may be appropriate to include smoke-free conditions into any service agreements with clients.  All those who are visited regularly should be notified of the guidance or conditions in advance.  Any regular users of the service could be asked to not smoke during a per-arranged visit and for a certain period prior the visit.  While this may be difficult to enforce in certain circumstances, it should lead to improvements over the short term. (This part adapted from the TUC guide 'Negotiating smoke-free workplaces')

With the growing evidence of the harmful effects of passive smoking, arguments about the rights of smokers and non-smokers, especially in the workplace, have increased.

Employers and 'persons who manage or control workplaces'  have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act both to employees and others (Sections 21, 23 & 26 of the Act - go to this section of the site for summary of the Act).

In June 1986, the Australian National Heart and Research Council, on reviewing the evidence, recommended that: An atmosphere free of tobacco smoke should be regarded as the workplace norm. Employers should be reminded of obligations to provide a safe working environment. This obligation is one under both common law and specific Occupational Health and Safety legislation.

While the OHS Act and regulations do not specifically address the issue of environmental tobacco smoke, the Victorian government has gradually been introducing reforms through the Tobacco Act:

  • June 2001- smoking banned inside dining venues 
  • 1 March 2006 - smoking prohibited in enclosed workplaces (other than hospitality venues) at all times whether or not the people working are paid or are volunteers (some exemptions apply). If a person smokes in an enclosed workplace, the person who smokes may receive a fine or be prosecuted, as may the person in charge of the enclosed workplace at the time. The exemptions included: hotel rooms and other premises providing accommodation to members of the public, including residential care facilities, and the sleeping and exercise areas of prisons and dedicated areas of secure mental health facilities.  
  • 1 July 2007 - all enclosed licensed premises must be smoke free. Smoking is also be prohibited in an outdoor dining or drinking area (eg a balcony or courtyard) if the area has a roof in place and the total actual area of the wall surfaces exceeds 75% of the total notional wall area.
  • 1 January 2010 - the Tobacco Amendment (Protection of Children) Act 2009  commenced, which amended the Tobacco Act 1987. These amendments include:
    • a ban on the display of tobacco products at point-of-sale with an exemption for certified 'specialist tobacconists'
    • smoking bans in a motor vehicle if a person under the age of 18 years is present
    • a ban on the sale of tobacco products from temporary outlets
    • a power for the Minister for Health to ban the sale of certain tobacco products and packaging that appeal to young people
    • amendments to penalties and enforcement provisions including amending the definition of 'occupier' and power for the Secretary of the Department of Health to request the names and addresses of persons supplied with tobacco in an electronic format
    • increases to the maximum infringement penalties for a number of offences
  • 1 January 2011 - retailers selling tobacco banned from displaying tobacco products. Tobacco products can not be visible from anywhere inside or outside a retail outlet. Tobacco products are also banned from being displayed on vending machines.
  • 1 December 2012 - smoking was banned at all of Victoria's patrolled beaches in the area between the red-and-yellow lifesaving flags and within a 50 metre radius of a red-and-yellow flag.
  • 1 March 2014 - all areas of train stations and raised platform tram stops became smoke free, increasing the comfort for customers who travel on Victoria's public transport network. These arrangements extended the existing smoke free zones, which included covered areas of train platforms and under covered tram and bus shelters. The fine for smoking in a smoke free area on public transport (at March 2014) is $212 for adults and $72 for children.
  • 1 April 2014 -  applications for specialist tobacconist certification closed. From this date, it was no longer possible for anyone to apply to have a premises certified as a specialist tobacconist (ie, exempt from the tobacco product display ban).
    Also smoking was banned outdoors within 10 metres of playgrounds and skate parks, sporting venues during under 18 events and within public swimming pools. 
  • 13 April 2015 - smoking was banned:
    • within the grounds of, and within four metres of an entrance to, all Victorian childcare centres, kindergartens (or preschools) and primary and secondary schools
    • at and within four metres of an entrance to children's indoor play centres and Victorian public premises. Victorian public premises are all public hospitals and registered community health centres and certain Victorian Government buildings.

      Read about smoke-free areas and smoke-free building entrances.
  • As of 1 August 2017, smoking has been prohibited in the following areas:
    • all outdoor dining areas where food (other than pre-packaged food or uncut fruit) is provided on a commercial basis;
    • at certain food fairs and organised events.
    • In addition, from 1 August 2017 the use of e-cigarettes and shishas tobacco were regulated in the same way as other tobacco products in all of the above legislated smokefree areas. Electronic cigarettes containing nicotine are prohibited in Victoria.

For more information and to check the latest on legislation on smoking, go to the Victorian government Tobacco Reforms website.

More information: What is passive smoking? 

Passive smoking is breathing in other people's smoke. It affects non-smokers and smokers.

Tobacco smoke contains over 4000 chemicals, which include at least 43 cancer-causing agents (carcinogens), carbon monoxide, nicotine, and hydrogen cyanide.

Passive smoking was hardly talked about twenty years ago. Up until quite recently, the debate has centred on active smoking, a habit we have known for over fifty years can cause disease in smokers. However, there has been mounting and conclusive evidence that passive smoking can harm the health of non-smokers who live and work in smoky environments. In fact, some studies have shown that some of the carcinogens and other toxic substances in sidestream smoke (the smoke which drifts from the end of a lit cigarette) are thirty times higher than in mainstream smoke (smoke inhaled by the smoker).

The Effects of exposure to ETS

Lung Cancer: Passive smoking has been shown to be a cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. A Canadian study found that hospitality workers exposed to ETS could see their risk of lung cancer triple.

June 2004:The latest research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) should put 'a final stop to all controversies fuelled at various degrees by the tobacco industry'. An IARC scientific working group concluded both smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke should be classified as 'Group 1' carcinogens, definitely causing cancer in humans. The committee said that non-smokers are exposed to the same carcinogens as active smokers, adding that 'even the typical levels of passive exposure have been shown to cause lung cancer among never smokers'.

Heart disease: There is increasing evidence that passive smoking causes both short- and long-term harm to the heart, by reducing the amount of oxygen carried in the bloodstream, and reducing exercise capacity. Chemicals in tobacco smoke also help clog the arteries, and cause blood clots, leading to heart attack. A United States Study found that regular exposure to ETS nearly doubled the risk of heart attack.

Stroke: A New Zealand study found that non-smokers exposed to ETS were more than 80% more likely to suffer a stroke than those who were not exposed.

Asthma: A 2001 study showed that never smoking adults who are exposed to ETS at work were twice as likely to develop asthma than those with no exposure. Adults exposed to ETS at home and at work were almost 5 times more likely to develop asthma than adults not exposed. A Scottish study found that non-smoking workers exposed to ETS suffered a reduction of up to 10% in lung function.

Effects on the unborn child: The risks to the foetus from smoking mothers are well known. However, it has also been found that the child of a pregnant woman subjected to passive smoking is more likely to be of low birth weight, and is at increased risk of dying soon after birth.

Third hand smoke

The dangers of smoking tobacco and exposure to second-hand smoke are well-known, but another hazard has come to light: third-hand smoke. The VTHC recently received a query about third-hand smoke

People can be exposed to second-hand smoke any time they are around someone who is smoking a cigarette. It comes from both the smoke from the tip of the cigarette and the smoke that the smoker is exhaling1. Second-hand smoke causes about 600,000 premature deaths every year worldwide.

The idea of third-hand smoke was first raised as a health hazard in 2006. Third-hand smoke (THS) is the tobacco residue that can remain on surfaces and dust for months after someone smokes a cigarette.2 In some situations, third-hand smoke can even remain on fabric for a year and a half after the last exposure to cigarette smoke.3 This residue can lead to respiratory issues like coughing, asthma, and respiratory tract infections.4 Third-hand smoke most often sticks around on indoor surfaces. Even in seemingly tobacco-free places, tobacco residue can remain on walls, floors, furniture, clothing, and even hair for months after a cigarette is smoked.5 A study investigating the effects of short-term third-hand smoke found that exposed mice were more likely to develop lung cancer compared with mice that were not exposed to THS.6

Exposure usually occurs through skin contact. When someone touches a surface that has smoke residue on it, that residue ends up on their hands which poses risks when they touch their face or mouth. Non-smokers living in homes that were inhabited by smokers previously often have residue left on their hands.[5] A longitudinal study looking at second-hand and third-hand smoke in a casino found extremely high levels of residue on surfaces and in dust. After a one-month smoking ban, surface nicotine decreased by 90 per cent but nicotine and tobacco-specific cancer-causing chemicals in dust decreased more slowly, declining by 90 per cent only after 3 months.7


  1. WHO Second-Hand Smoke Fact Sheet. (2014).[pdf]
  2. Acuff, L., Fristoe, K., Hamblen, J., Smith, M., & Chen, J. (2015). Third-Hand Smoke: Old Smoke, New Concerns. Journal of Community Health, 41(3), 680-687. doi:10.1007/s10900-015-0114-1
  3. Bahl, V., Jacob, P., Havel, C., Schick, S. F., & Talbot, P. (2014). Thirdhand Cigarette Smoke: Factors Affecting Exposure and Remediation. PLoS ONE, 9(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108258
  4. Roberts, C., Wagler, G., & Carr, M. M. (2017). Environmental Tobacco Smoke: Public Perception of Risks of Exposing Children to Second- and Third-Hand Tobacco Smoke. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 31(1). doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2016.08.008
  5. Ganjre, A. P., & Sarode, G. S. (2016). Third hand smoke – A hidden demon. Oral Oncology, 54. doi:10.1016/j.oraloncology.2016.01.007
  6. Hang B, Wang Y, Jen K, et al. Short-term early exposure to thirdhand cigarette smoke increases lung cancer incidence in mice. Clinical Science [serial online]. n.d.;132(4):475-488. Available from: Science Citation Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 21, 2018.
  7. Matt GE, Quintana PJE, Hoh E, et al A Casino goes smoke free: a longitudinal study of secondhand and thirdhand smoke pollution and exposure Tobacco Control Published Online First: 08 February 2018. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2017-054052
  8. How Parents Can Prevent Exposure to Thirdhand Smoke. HealthyChildren.org. . Accessed May 21, 2018.
The above, Third-hand smoke, is from the US Center for Health Research

See Also

Last amended March 2019