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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

Do You Smoke? So do Your Kids and Grandkids

The connection between smoking and lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema was confirmed in the land-mark Surgeon General’s report in 1964. There is not a person over the age of 2 who hasn’t already heard that smoking is "dangerous to your health." Only now are scientists confirming another long-suspected tobacco danger-- that breathing air containing someone else’s smoke (passive smoking) poses many of the same health risks as by smoking yourself (active smoking).

It is not uncommon to see parents and grandparents smoking in the presence of  children and grandchildren. Presumably, they know that cigarette smoking is indeed dangerous to their health. But what they may not know is the serious damage their smoke inflicts on their developing youngster.

Everyone near a cigarette smoker breathes the same harmful chemicals they do. The smoke emitted from the burning end of a cigarette ("side stream smoke") actually contains a higher concentration of the 4,000 chemicals than found in the smoke inhaled by the smoker ("mainstream smoke"). Tobacco companies refuse to provide a complete listing of these substances, which is not surprising. Few parents would purposely expose their child to a room filled with 200 known poisons, including benzene (a cancer-causing flammable liquid), carbon monoxide (a poisonous oxygen blocker), formaldehyde (a disinfectant and preservative), ammonia (a poisonous gas used in making explosives and fertilizer) and hydrogen cyanide (a poisonous rat killer). Yet, these are just some of the substances that come from the end of a burning cigarette.

How can you tell if your child is getting these dangerous chemicals? If you can smell smoke, your child is breathing sidestream smoke. A child in a smoky room or restaurant for one hour inhales as many bad chemicals through side-stream smoke as they would by smoking 10 or more cigarettes.

A child continually exposed to cigarette smoke has a greater chance of developing colds, bronchitis and pneumonia, chronic coughs and reduced lung function. A draft report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 150,000 to 300,000 cases of bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory tact infections in children under 18 months of age, resulting in 7,500 to 15,000 hospital visits. Children of smokers have six times the number of middle ear infections than children whose parents do not smoke. Furthermore, passive smoke causes fluid in the middle ear, a common reason for hearing loss and operations in young children. Some childhood illness is unavoidable, but the "smoking child" has a much harder time clearing the infection than if he or she breathed smoke free air.

Additionally, parents who smoke at home can aggravate symptoms in some asthmatic children and even trigger an asthma attack. More than 26,000 new cases of childhood asthma are caused by second-hand smoke, and passive smoke exacerbates symptoms in more than one million children who already have asthma. There is also a link between maternal smoking and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Faced with these statistics, it is the opinion of many people that a smoking parent is abusing a child in the same way as one who physically or emotionally commits child abuse.

Children of smoking parents also worry about their parents health. In the largest survey ever undertaken on smoking and family life, 86 percent of kids whose parents smoke said they are scared their parents might die from a smoking related disease. "When a parent smokes, it leaves kids in a state of anguish," said family psychologist Dr. Lee Salk. "They think, here’s the parent I love doing something destructive. I may lose this parent...." Interestingly, more than 70 percent of these children have tried to get their parents to stop smoking.

What can parents and grandparents who smoke do? Stop smoking! Some parents think that stopping now is useless because the damage has already been done. This simply is not true- by stopping, parents can rapidly reverse the damage to themselves and their children, not only of cancer but pneumonia, recurrent ear infections and related problems.

If you cannot stop, then always smoke outside the home and never in the car. Studies have shown it does little good for a parent to smoke only in their room or in the bathroom. Ask to be seated in the smoke-free section of restaurants. Make sure that your child care provider does not smoke. Ask visitors not to smoke in your home and demand that all public buildings be smoke-free. Exposure to second hand smoke causes more than 63,000 deaths and countless infections in our children. Let our elected officials know how important a smoke-free environment is to your child’s health.

Finally, children can become active too, by asking for a smoke-free environment and smoke-free schools. Children are also great motivators. According to Dr. Alan Blum, founder and chairman of the international health advocacy group DOC (Doctors Ought to Care), the best motivation he ever heard was from the son of a dentist who smoked. Every time the dentist lit-up his son would ask, "Mommy, are you going to get married again after daddy dies?"

The facts cannot be ignored. If a parent smokes, then their child smokes. If your babysitter smokes, then your child inhales the same dangerous chemicals. When your child spends the night with grandma and grandpa who use cigarettes, then the grandchildren also will. Every kid deserves a chance at life. Let’s stop committing child abuse by smoking around them, and give our children clean healthy air to breathe.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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