Focus on Pediatrics

Teach parents dangers of secondhand smoke

By age 5, child could inhale 102 packs of cigarettes

There now is a lot of evidence that secondhand smoke puts children at risk for several health problems, says Virginia Reichert, NP, director of the Center For Tobacco Control for the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, NY. Yet approximately 42% of all children in the United States are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis. Most of the time, the exposure is in their home or in the family car.

Part of the reason for this exposure is that those addicted to nicotine are in denial about the hazards of secondhand smoke. Others simply do not know.

"As people are educated about secondhand smoke, the more willing they are to change their behavior," says Reichert.

Some of the information that smokers need in order to understand how their smoking might impact the health of their children is that the chemicals from the cigarettes permeate everything. Often, parents who smoke will say that they only light a cigarette in the kitchen with the exhaust fan turned on or they smoke with their head out the window.

Reichert’s response is that these methods of smoking are similar to urinating in one part of the pool. The carcinogens and poisons in cigarettes enter the atmosphere in the smoke and land on the carpets, upholstery, and drapes. "You can scrape a pint of tar off the walls in the house of a smoker within one year of smoking," says Reichert.

There are more than 4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke and 200 are poisonous, 43 are carcinogens, and nine are Class A carcinogens, which in large doses can cause cancer. Smoke from a lit cigarette left in an ashtray is especially harmful. When a smoker inhales on the cigarette the temperature is raised and as the tobacco mixes with oxygen, the hazardous particles are more completely combusted than when a cigarette is left smoldering in an ashtray, says Reichert.

Studies show that children who live with a smoker are much likely to get ear infections, and there is a fourfold increase in sudden infant death syndrome in children who are born into a family where someone in the house smokes. The chances of developing asthma increase as well. About 26,000 new cases of pediatric asthma are diagnosed every year because of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Neurological effects of smoking

There is a possibility that secondhand smoke may decrease a child’s IQ. There is evidence that secondhand smoke is toxic to the brain. It could affect the area of the brain that causes a person to be satiated after a meal and therefore lead to a higher incidence of childhood obesity.

Reichert tells smokers that if they aren’t ready to quit, they need to make sure that they never smoke around their children. That means smoking outside, no matter what the weather is like. Also, they must never smoke in their car whether the children are present or not. That’s because the carcinogens and poisons permeate the upholstery and carpet. "A child living with a smoker inhales 102 packs of cigarettes by the age of 5," she reports.

Children are smaller, their respiratory rate is faster than adults, and their lungs are developing. Exposure to secondhand smoke in childhood affects a person’s lung function as an adult. "From the age of 18 or 20, lungs start to get old. The rate of decline is much greater in smokers and it is greater in kids who are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis," says Reichert.

Adults who live with smokers increase their risk for lung cancer by 30%. A recent study tracked couples in Japan where men frequently smoke but women do not. Researchers looked at the cause of death of women married to smokers to determine how many had died of lung cancer to calculate the risk. They found that the women who lived with a pack-a-day smoker had an 80% risk of developing lung cancer. If their husband smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, their risk of getting lung cancer jumped to 94%.


For more information about educating parents about the dangers of secondhand smoke, contact:

Virginia Reichert, NP, Director, Center for Tobacco Control, North Shore-LIJ Health System, 225 Community Drive, South Entrance, Great Neck, NY 11021. Telephone: (516) 466-1980. E-mail: