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How harmful is it to smoke around children? More harmful than most people would ever imagine. Not only are there the more subtle, long-term health risks that come from exposing developing bodies to the toxins in cigarettes, but secondhand smoke also kills children in a very literal sense by causing and/or worsening the respiratory infections and other illnesses that lead to their demise.

Children exposed to cigarette smoke

Children exposed to secondhand smoke and the toxic residues of thirdhand smoke are prone to a number of health problems. Smoking around children causes:

  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Ear infections
  • Impaired lung function
  • Asthma
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • Degenerative vision
  • Cognitive deficits & lower IQ
  • Genetic damage & reduced telomere length
  • Reduced life expectancy
  • Increased risk of type-2 diabetes
  • Higher risk of infertility later
  • Increases in cervical & uterine cancer
  • Loss of bone density
  • Increases in depression & mental illness (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 2006; Szabo, 7-28-2008)

The following information will discuss some of these consequences in greater detail.

Secondhand smoke increases the risk of infection and illness

One thing that few people realize is that cigarette smoke contains compounds that weaken the immune system while inflaming tissue and hindering a person’s ability to fight off infections of all types. Therefore children exposed to secondhand smoke are at higher risk for a variety of illnesses, such as pneumonia, ear infections or lung infections. (Szabo, 11-26-2010) For example, secondhand smoke in the home more than doubles a child’s risk of contracting bacterial meningitis, a dangerous infection that causes inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. (Parents, Aug. 2013, p. 66) Cigarette smoke puts people at such increased risk of bacterial infection that it’s recommended all smokers receive special vaccines to help guard against it.

The consequences of smoking during pregnancy

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable pregnancy complications. (Szabo, 7-28-2008) It is responsible for 20% of cases of low birth weight, 8% of pre-term deliveries, and 5% of prenatal deaths.

Babies exposed to cigarette smoke

Infants exposed to secondhand smoke at home are more prone to a variety of severe childhood illnesses, since smoking increases the rates of infection. Babies who breathe in these toxins are at increased risk for SIDS, asthma, ear infections and other health problems. As a result, smoking causes an estimated 910 infant deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC, or about 5% of all infant deaths. (CDC, 12-14-2007)

Increases in asthma from exposure to secondhand smoke

President Obama once blamed his daughter Malia’s asthma on global warming, yet it’s far more likely his own smoking played a significant role. According to the CDC, “Tobacco smoke is one of the most common asthma triggers.” They further warn that “If you have asthma, it’s important that you avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.” (Robbins, 4-10-2015) Cigarette smoke not only triggers asthma attacks but can worsen the symptoms, which means secondhand smoke exposure sometimes spells the difference between a survivable asthma attack and one that kills a child..

Recent research has also shown that cigarette smoke, just like other toxic exposures, can actually create the disease to begin with. Moreover, researchers at the University of Southern California found that not only does smoking around children affect them directly, but it triggers genetic changes that increase the risk of asthma for their offspring as well, by as much as 2.5 times. (Readers Digest, 7/2005)

Cognitive & neurodevelopmental effects of cigarette smoke

Nicotine smoke suppresses neurogenesis in the brain (Shors, 2009), and thus can lead to cognitive delays and loss of IQ in children.

Mental health problems

Another little known consequence is an increase in anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness. Human and animal studies have both shown that smokers have altered levels of dopamine in their brains, which has been tied to anxiety and depression. Secondhand smoke seems to have similar effects. A study that measured secondhand exposure by blood tests of cotinine, a chemical that shows up after breathing in smoke, found that non-smokers who are exposed to cigarette smoke at home or work are more than twice as likely as those not exposed to suffer from major depression. (Elias, 3-5-2009) Thus adults who smoke around children are putting these kids at greater risk for a mood disorder.

Children killed by smokers

It can be deadly for children to be around cigarette smoke. Worldwide, around 165,000 kids are killed each and every year as a direct result of exposure to secondhand smoke. More than two-thirds of these deaths are in Africa and Asia, where health services tend to be lacking. Yet children in the West are hardly immune. “The combination of infectious diseases and tobacco seems to be a deadly combination for children,” says a report in The Lancet that tallied these deaths. (Szabo, 11-26-2010)

In the U.S. these deaths include the thousand or so infants killed from diseases related to secondhand smoke exposure, along with the dozens of older children killed because of asthma attacks, infections, or cancer triggered by the toxins in cigarette smoke. (Smokers also cause hundreds more childhood deaths through the residential home fires they accidentally start.) To put this risk in perspective, smokers are many thousands of times more dangerous and deadly to children than the registered sex offenders everyone seems so worried about, who collectively kill about one child every 3 to 5 years. Big Tobacco, meanwhile, is killings thousands of kids annually in the name of profit.


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