If your adolescent child has been exposed to secondhand smoke, he may already have heart disease. That’s the message of a new study published this month.
Researchers in Finland followed around 500 children from age 8 to 13. Every year they did a blood test that measured their exposure to tobacco smoke in the previous few days. At age 13, they looked at the arteries of the children using ultrasound, to measure their thickness and health, and measured their levels of Apolipoprotein B, which gives a direct measure of the lipoproteins that can cause heart disease. They found that healthy 13-year-olds with exposure to tobacco smoke between 8 and 13 had thickening of the major arteries and higher levels of Apolipoprotein B. While the effects were worse in the kids with the highest exposure to tobacco smoke, they were present in kids with even modest exposure.
This is scary stuff—especially when you add it to what we already know about the dangers of secondhand smoke:
• According to the American Cancer Society, each year it cases 46,000 deaths in non-smokers who live with smokers, and 3,400 lung cancers in non-smoking adults
• Every year, it causes between 150,000 and 300,000 lung infections in children less than 18 months old, leading to between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations
• Children with asthma who are exposed to cigarette smoke have more frequent and severe asthma attacks
• Children living with smokers can have slower lung growth
• Secondhand smoke is responsible for more than 750,000 middle ear infections in children every year
• Exposure to cigarette smoke increases the risk that a baby will die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
• Exposure during pregnancy (just exposure—the woman doesn’t have to smoke herself) can lead to low-birthweight babies
• While exposure to the actual smoke is the most dangerous, more research is suggesting that the particles that get into things like hair, clothing and furniture (those particles that make people smell like cigarette smoke) are toxic as well—so smoking away from people may not be enough
It’s no surprise, then, that a 2006 Surgeon General’s report said that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. But despite this, exposure is still happening—in the workplace, in public places, in far too many homes and in cars (for those who think that rolling down the windows makes smoking in the car okay, a study from New Zealand showed that even with the windows down, the exposure was the same as in a smoky bar!)
It’s time for zero tolerance. Here’s how we can start:
• If you smoke, quit. You don’t really want to hurt the people around you, do you? I know that it’s not that easy—but there are treatments that can help. Talk to your doctor.
• Boycott the houses of people who smoke. I know this sounds rude, but what’s more important: being polite, or the future health of your family? And who knows, when Grandma or Uncle George realizes that you are serious about not visiting with the kids, it might just be the impetus they need to quit.
• To the extent that it is possible, don’t let your children be around cigarette smoke. Before you say yes to a playdate, ask if there’s anyone who smokes—if there is, have it at your house instead. Don’t go to restaurants that have a smoking section. Avoid public smoking areas.
• Support smoke-free policies in the workplace and your community. The goal should be for all workplaces to be smoke-free. Nobody should be forced to take a health risk in order to make a living!
• Talk to your kids about smoking. According to a 2007 CDC survey, 20% of high school students smoke. That’s better than 23% in 2005, but still too high. Make sure your kids get the message loud and clear from you that smoking is a really bad idea (if you smoke yourself, it’s going to be hard to get that message across!)
Working together, we can make a difference—and we have to. The lives of our children are at stake.