Only 20% of Israelis smoke.
Only 20% of Israelis smoke. Photo by Reuters
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More than 60 percent of nonsmokers in Israel are passive smokers, and as such are exposed to the same health risks as those who light up, a Health Ministry study finds.

While only about 20 percent of Israel's adult population smokes cigarettes, passive smokers are equally exposed to the risks of developing cancer, the study shows.

The research, presented on Wednesday at a conference about exposure to dust at Tel Aviv University, shows that passive smokers absorb the toxins emitted from cigarettes into their bodies.

The study was conducted by a team headed by Dr. Tamar Berman, the Health Ministry's chief toxicologist and a researcher at the Hebrew University's Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

The researchers studied urine samples taken between February and June 2011 from 248 people over the age of 18 - 155 of whom classified themselves as nonsmokers - from five places around the country. Most of the subjects were aged between 45 and 73.

The samples were sent for comprehensive tests in a University of Erlangen-Nuremberg laboratory.

It transpired that 635 of the samples taken from nonsmokers contained measurable concentrations of cotinine - an alkaloid found in tobacco and the principal metabolite of nicotine.

"Cotinine indicates exposure to cigarette smoke up to several days back," said Berman. "The main significance is that most nonsmokers in Israel absorb the cigarette smoke of smokers near them into their body, which leads to the toxins' secretion into the urine."

The tests showed that exposure to passive smoking is higher among nonsmoking men (78 percent ) than women (51 percent ), and higher in the Arab community (73 percent ) compared to the Jewish population (67 percent ).

The study also found that, perhaps surprisingly, exposure to passive smoking is higher in rural communities (71 percent ) than in urban settings (63 percent ), although this statistic was based on a small number of subjects.

The study was financed by the Environmental Health Fund and its findings were summarized together with the Health Ministry's head of public health services, Prof. Itamar Grotto.

A comparison of the findings with a similar study conducted in Canada between 2007 and 2009 shows that, among people aged between 20 and 39, the rate of nonsmoking Israeli men exposed to passive smoking (67 percent ) is six times higher than that in Canada (10 percent ). Among women the exposure rate (50 percent ) is five times higher than that in Canada (10 percent ).

The Israeli study found the average concentration of cotinine in the samples of nonsmoking men (3.3 micrograms per liter ) was 2.75 times higher than the that found among nonsmoking women (1.2 micrograms per liter ). This shows that men are more exposed to passive smoking than women.

An especially low cotinine concentration was found among Arab women, probably because their social customs do not entail high exposure to smokers.

"But when it comes to cigarettes, every exposure endangers one's health and there is no threshold below which smoking is considered healthy," said Berman.

Passive smoking is a known carcinogenic and has been added in recent years to the International Agency for Research on Cancer's list of carcinogenics in human beings.

The National Cancer Institute in the United States has found that nonsmokers are exposed to at least 69 carcinogenic toxic chemicals. Some 3,000 nonsmokers who are exposed to passive smoking in the United States die annually of lung cancer.

The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that a smoking spouse raises his or her partner's risk of developing cancer by between 20 and 30 percent. Exposure to passive smoking also raises the risk of heart disease by between 25 to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.