Secondhand smoke has already been undeniably linked to a plethora of health problems—similar to those experienced by smokers—from heart disease to cancer. Now, researchers have shown that second-hand smoke, the environmental smoke that drifts from the end of a lit cigarette or is exhaled by a smoker, exposes children to other health risks. Specifically, reduced cognitive ability and adiposity, a fancy word for fat, especially in the belly, has been linked to the children’s exposure to secondhand smoke. Dr. Catherine Davis, clinical health psychologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, explained that
The take-home message is that for these children, smoke exposure was connected to two major adverse health outcomes, one above the neck and one below the neck.”
The research, published in Childhood Obesity, looked at passive smoke exposure in 220 overweight or obese boys and girls, ages seven to eleven. The children who were exposed to second-hand smoke scored worse on all cognitive tests than children who were not exposed. Poor cognitive scores translate into poor attention span in class, low grades, and poor performance on standardized tests. The impact of the smoke on cognition was evident whether the children were fat or not and regardless of their socioeconomic status. The children exposed to secondhand smoke had substantially higher percentages of body fat than their also heavy peers, which further increases the exposed children’s risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other obesity related diseases.
Children live in environments over which they have no control and cannot regulate how much cigarette smoke they endure. Parents have the responsibility to make the proper behavioral choices that do not put themselves or their children at both a physical and mental disadvantage. The consequences of secondhand smoke exposure are lifelong.
Surprisingly the researchers did not find that the secondhand smoke exposure caused a worsening of the children’s breathing problems while asleep, such as snoring. The exposure also did not seem to be connected to the development of diabetes. The reason the researchers speculate is that the secondhand smoke exposure—at least at the young ages observed—is related to the fat, but not to metabolic processes that cause diabetes. However, the additional fat and large waist are definitely a risks factor for obesity related diseases, including diabetes. How and why there seemed no direct connection between diabetes and the smoke exposure is a puzzle for statisticians and clinicians. The bottom line is that the secondhand smoke leads to adverse outcomes—having increased belly fat and impaired cognition are serious.
First, parents must be honest with themselves about what they are doing to their children if they smoke. They must take responsibilities for the future they are creating for their unsuspecting, innocent children. This study suggests they are not being honest because 25 percent of the children of parents who reported no smoker in the home had blood levels that showed clearly that they had been exposed to secondhand smoke.
The only way to stop the dangerous outcomes is to admit the problem and eliminate the secondhand smoke exposure. Families need tailored interventions and education on nutrition, physical activity, and the dangers of tobacco use around children to reverse this course and give children a chance for a healthy life. Breathing second-hand smoke has been proven to be almost as bad as smoking a cigarette yourself.
Cigarette smoking causes needless deaths and befalls families with unnecessary financial burdens and emotional losses. Of the annual 480,000 premature deaths related to tobacco use that occur in the United States each year, 42,000 are nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke.
This must stop.