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Secondhand Smoke Harms Toddlers, Obese Children


Although secondhand smoke harms all children, it is especially hazardous for toddlers and obese kids. That is the findings of a study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2009, which also noted that in addition to respiratory problems, secondhand smoke also has negative cardiovascular effects.

The health implications of exposure to secondhand smoke among children was emphasized by the Surgeon General on September 18, 2007, when he noted that it causes premature death and disease in young people and that children in the United States are exposed to secondhand smoke more than are nonsmoking adults. The 2006 Surgeon General’s report stated that 60 percent of US children aged 3 to 11 years are impacted by secondhand smoke.

The new study involved 52 toddlers (ages 2 to 5 years) and 107 adolescents (ages 9 to 18 years) and included blacks, whites, and Hispanics, and obese children in both age groups. The researchers discovered a link between the amount of secondhand smoke exposure and a marker of vascular damage in toddlers, and this link was twice as great in toddlers who were obese.

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Toddlers had a fourfold greater risk of secondhand smoke exposure when compared to adolescents, even though they had similar reported exposure at home. Toddlers who were exposed to secondhand smoke also had a 30 percent reduction in circulating vascular endothelial progenitor cells, a type of cell that is necessary for repairing and maintaining healthy blood vessels. Among obese adolescents, those exposed to secondhand smoke had twice the evidence of vascular damage when compared with their normal-weight peers.

Because the changes observed in the children were similar to those recognized as risks for heart disease in adults, the study’s researchers noted that this suggests that some elements of adult heart disease may begin early in childhood. Thus initiating preventive measures at this point could have important life-long consequences.

This was the first study to look at the impact of obesity along with exposure to secondhand smoke among children. According to John Anthony Bauer, PhD, the study’s senior co-author and principal investigator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital & Research Institute at Ohio State University in Columbus, previous research shows that secondhand smoke and smoking increase oxidation and inflammation. With this latest study, the investigators believe “that the two factors together (e.g., smoke exposure plus obesity) may interact to amplify the degree of inflammation or vascular cell damage that occurs.”

The findings from this study further support the need to eliminate smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, especially among children. Parents and other caregivers should be particularly alert to the evidence that toddlers and obese children are at greater risk of respiratory and cardiovascular damage from exposure to secondhand smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to secondhand smoke can cause bronchitis and pneumonia in infants and young children, exacerbate asthma symptoms, increase the risk for ear infections, and cause respiratory symptoms such as cough, phlegm, wheezing, and breathlessness.

American Heart Association news release, Nov. 18, 2009
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention