Smoking Policies in Hotels and Motels Affect Exposure to Toxic Thirdhand Smoke

New data from South Korea shows that smoking policies for hotels are key factors in non-smoker’s exposure to toxic tobacco smoke residue. 

By Katherine Greiner

July 12, 2021

While COVID restrictions ease and we begin to reintroduce travel into our lives, there is a potential route of thirdhand smoke exposure that we should explore: hotels and motels.  

A research team led by Thirdhand Smoker Research Consortium member Dr. Myung-Bae Park, of Pai Chai University, Daejeon, Republic of Korea, investigated if non-smoking guests in hotels and motels were exposed to thirdhand smoke during their stays. 

Similar to the US, travelers in South Korea have the option of staying in hotels or motels. Hotels are frequently larger, and run by big, recognizable brands like Westin and Marriot, as well as local resort brands. Motels are typically smaller, and run by individual owners rather than companies. By South Korean law, hotels must have non-smoking public spaces, although they can have ‘smoking’ rooms. Many international companies choose to have more non-smoking spaces than is legally required. Motels are not restricted by law in the same way, and since they are frequently located near bars and nightclubs, many allow smoking freely in public spaces and in rooms. This study was designed to compare levels of exposure to thirdhand smoke in non-smoking guests of hotels and motels. 

Participants in this study were randomly assigned to stay in non-smoking rooms in either a hotel or a motel. Following a 14-hour stay in their assigned hotel or motel room, each participant collected dust samples from their room and submitted a urine sample. Dust samples were tested for the lung carcinogen NNK, as a measure of tobacco smoke residue in the hotel or motel room, and urine samples were tested for cotinine and NNAL. Participants also took note of how much, if at all, the building and room smelled of cigarette smoke. 

The results show that those who stayed in non-smoking rooms in motels were exposed to more tobacco residue than those who stayed in non-smoking rooms in hotels, and that those in motels were exposed to more tobacco residue than they were in their daily lives. 

Dr. Park and his colleagues encourage hotel and motel managers to implement 100% smokefree policies, “as smokefree polices are an important means to protect the health of customers and can also be beneficial for the business. Motel owners [in South Korea] must make efforts to designate their guest rooms as non-smoking, which is the minimum intervention that can protect non-smokers.” If smoking is allowed anywhere in the hotel, “It’s important to remind guests that hotels and motels are not completely smokefree places.” 

Dr. Park compares his experience in South Korea hotels and motels with his experiences in other countries and notes a wide variation in smokefree polices, ranging from very strict smoking bans to very permissive environments where smoking is allowed in many spaces. What is needed in South Korea, he says, is a change in culture: “The culture itself needs to be changed to a non-smoking culture.” 

In the meantime, the safest choice for travelers in any country remains to seek out hotels that are 100% smoke-free, always request a non-smoking room, and confirm at check-in that a non-smoking room has been assigned.  These simple steps will minimize exposure to toxic tobacco residue to you and your family. 

Click here to read the research study

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