U.S. Parents Exposing Children to Cigarette Smoke

Forty percent allow smoking around kids in the family home

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Published on April 04, 2005

MONDAY, April 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Too many American parents are ignoring health warnings and letting their children be exposed to cigarette smoke at home, in cars and in public places, a new report finds.

The phenomenon cut across all ethnicities, the researchers noted, although rates for child exposure to smoke in public places were highest among poor and minority families.

The findings suggest anti-tobacco messages may not be reaching a large number of parents.

"We still have a long way to go," said study co-author Sara Pyle, a graduate researcher at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "Not as many people are limiting exposure to tobacco smoke as we'd like to see."

Scientists have linked tobacco exposure to a variety of ailments in children, including asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and middle-ear infections. Adding to their risk is the fact that children take in more air in relation to their size than adults, noted Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a consultant for scientific affairs at the American Lung Association.

"They're always getting more toxins into their lungs," Edelman explained, especially because they're more active than their elders.

In the new study, Pyle and her colleagues surveyed 1,770 parents and guardians of children in New York and New Jersey who visited pediatricians at 15 health clinics. Ninety percent of the parents and guardians identified themselves as minorities.

The researchers wanted to know if the families limit tobacco exposure inside and outside the home. "The ideal would be a smoke-free home, and no smoking around the home," Pyle said. "What we'd love to see is a consistent message across the board, that (parents) would ask people not to smoke in the presence of their children."

The results of the survey appear in the spring issue of Families, Systems & Health, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

The researchers found that 40 percent of parent and guardians allow smoking around children in the home. Less than half don't allow smoking around kids in the car, while a similar number usually choose to sit in the non-smoking sections of restaurants. Only 30 percent of all the parents surveyed make a point of sitting in nonsmoking sections of trains.

Results varied by race and ethnicity. While minority families were less likely than whites to shield children from smoke in public spaces such as trains or restaurants (by opting for nonsmoking areas), in other situations this disparity disappeared or was reversed. For example, white parents were actually less likely than black or Hispanic parents to ask other adults to cease smoking in the presence of their children.

Income appeared to play a role in these types of decisions, as well: Families making less than $41,000 a year were the least likely to take precautions regarding children's exposure to tobacco smoke, the researchers found.

Pyle said the study findings could help education efforts aimed at making smoking unacceptable around children. It's important to make a point of "getting the information out there, educating health workers, letting them know this is something they can address," she said. For parents, the key is "helping them understand that they can create a smoke-free home, that it's imperative for the health of their children."

Parents should not panic if their child is very occasionally exposed to cigarette smoke, however. "If you don't smoke very much or aren't exposed to much secondhand smoke, the effect may be so low that you can't detect it," Edelman said. "We think the evidence is that the more exposure you get, the worse it is."

More information

For more information about children and secondhand smoke, try the American Cancer Society.

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