Secondhand Smoke and Children

"No Smoking," the ubiquitous sign in public buildings, should also be present in another building your home. According to the August issue of the British Medical Journal, University of Warwick researchers recommend banning all smoking in parents' homes in order to decrease the potential harm of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) to babies.

In previous studies, ETS has been associated with increased risk of infants developing lower respiratory tract infections (LRIs) such as bronchitis and pneumonia, increased prevalence of fluid in the middle ear, symptoms of upper respiratory tract irritation, and a small but significant reduction in lung function. Moreover, ETS can cause additional episodes and increased severity of symptoms of asthma. ETS is also a risk factor for new cases of asthma in children who have not previously displayed symptoms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency report "Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking." Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that childhood ETS exposure may increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and eye cataracts later in life. (See ACSH's booklet on ETS effects.)

In the new BMJ report, researchers studied infants in 314 households and found a "small but significant reduction" in the level of cotinine (a nicotine byproduct used as an indicator of smoke exposure) in infants in houses that banned smoking. Less drastic measures, such as opening a window, not smoking in the same room as a child, and using a fan or air freshener "[were] no different than doing nothing at all," lead researcher Dr. Nick Spencer told CBC News. The scientists also noted that while 86% of parents believed that ETS is harmful, only 18% of households forbid smoking inside their homes. "[There is] a big gulf between parents' knowledge and actually translating that into behavior," said Amanda Stanford of the British group Action on Smoking and Health.

In 2000, Dr. Judith Groner at Ohio State University, in a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, determined that the presence of additional smokers in the home and young age of the children were among the risk factors for increased cotinine in infants and in young children of mothers who are smokers.

Although the findings of the BMJ study have yet to be replicated, parents should take measures to decrease their children's exposure to ETS, starting inside the home.

Recently, there have been some reports detracting from studies demonstrating the deleterious effects of ETS. Scientists at the University of California - Los Angeles reported in the May 17 issue of the British Medical Journal "that the association between tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed" in adults. The UCLA researchers, did, however, find a correlation between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ETS exposure. A Helena, Montana study showing a decrease in heart attacks during a brief smoking ban there has been criticized for using a small sample size and timeframe (in a few short months, hospital admissions for heart attacks averaged three per month instead of seven per month). As ACSH's ETS booklet notes, however, ETS is clearly linked to a variety of less life-threatening conditions.

People of all ages should attempt to avoid exposure to ETS when possible.


August 7, 2003

I was sent to this link from, which is a libertarian source of articles on various subjects dear to their hearts. I always thought the libertarians were in the pockets of the tobacco companies based on their pro-smoking stance. I can't understand why they posted this link on their website. Shows you what I know. Maybe they are open-minded after all.

Steve Callas

August 25, 2003

The following is a response to Steve Callas's comment.

I believe the Libertarian platform is premised on non-initiation of violence, limited government, personal responsibility, and limitations only when actions would interfere with another's freedom. I've been reading's Freedom News Daily for years, and I don't believe the Libertarians are in anyone's pockets. They are a little slow to accept new research. (For instance, they still seem unconvinced regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke and the climatic phenomenon commonly referred to as "global warming.") Reality is subjective, and I think we can all understand their resistance to government control on what they consider spurious grounds, hence the proliferation of stories summarized by lambasting the laws against smoking in public, Kyoto, etc.

Disclaimer: I'm a registered Green, and while I do have Libertarian leanings, one of the reasons I read FND is to see what the conservative "opposition" is up to so I am by no means qualified to speak for the Libertarian Party, nor am I attempting to. This is just the opinion of an outside observer. Keep the faith!

Trebor Lauri Gibson

November 7, 2003

First of all, I am not a smoker. My father smoked through half of my childhood, and my mother never smoked. My parents did not have allergies, nor did any of the eight children. We spent a lot of time outdoors and were seldom ill.

I noticed that in many families where the husband smoked and the wife did not, the wife outlived the husband by ten to twenty years. This tells me that secondhand smoke did not do as much as pollution to cause health problems.

In the 70s, our family would travel from Kansas to Minnesota for vacation. We enjoyed the view as we traveled back from Minnesota to Kansas, the nice clean air and lack of smog. In the mid-80s, that view changed drastically; the haze that hung over Missouri and Kansas was unbelievable. I had my first allergy problem in 1985. My allergy problems are mild compared to those of my husband, who is from a non-smoking family and who has never smoked himself.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is pollution. More needs to be done to clean up the pollution that is being emitted into the air.

E. Stanley

ACSH replies:

You are right that the health effects of secondhand smoke have often been exaggerated. But while air pollution has caused illness in the past in the U.S. and still does in some developing countries, it has been greatly reduced in the U.S. in recent decades and is no longer a significant health problem. Nature, on the other hand, remains a significant source of allergic reactions, and pollen allergies often appear as people age, frequently in their late twenties or early thirties. You and your husband are simply not a large enough statistical sample from which to draw conclusions about whether those allergies are correlated to parental smoking.