There has long been a controversy about marijuana versus tobacco?is smoking pot better than or just as bad as smoking cigarettes? And now that cigarette smokers have to go outside to light up, is this dangerous for NON-smokers walking by, who may inhale the secondhand smoke?

A single cannabis joint has the same effect on the lungs as smoking up to five cigarettes at one time because pot smokers tend to inhale more deeply and to hold their breath for longer in order to get high. And secondhand smoke of all kinds can be a problem?even secondhand marijuana smoke. With the growing number of smoking bans in restaurants and bars driving smokers outside, researchers in Athens, Georgia wanted to find out whether secondhand smoke from smokers clustered outside these establishments is posing a health hazard of its own. Athens, which has more than 100 pubs and restaurants, banned smoking in bars and restaurants partially in 2004 and then fully in 2005. Smokers gather in a small common area outside many establishments.

Researcher Luke Naeher says, “Athens is a college town, and we have thousands of college kids standing shoulder to shoulder outside bars and restaurants on weekend nights. In select areas outside certain establishments, we believe many of these young people are exposed to elevated levels of secondhand smoke. You can have 40 to 50 smokers in a small area?which translates to fairly aggressive exposures to secondhand smoke, even if it?s outside. We want to know what those exposures are, and if it’s unhealthy, we want to tell policy makers who are making decisions about these regulations.”

In order to study how much secondhand smoke was being created in these areas, Naeher and his students measured carbon monoxide and small particles, which penetrate deep into the lung. Both substances are found in secondhand smoke, but they are also found in car exhaust. To determine how much of these substances came from smoke, the researchers went downtown for four weekend afternoons and evenings and measured the air in front of five locations, including two restaurants, two bars and one area with no smokers. They measured the particles and carbon monoxide every 30 seconds, and then every five minutes they counted the number of cars, smokers and nonsmokers who passed by. They found that a rise in the pollutants was associated with an increase in the number of smokers, and not with motor vehicle traffic.

Naeher says, “There’s a wide range of health effects that are tied to secondhand smoke. With more inside smoking bans, more people seem to be smoking outside. Are we creating zones that are potentially unhealthy? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

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