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Innocent Victims of Smoking : Health of children suffers measurably when parents smoke

June 30, 1991

Last year's finding by two UC San Francisco medical researchers startled many in the health care field. The third leading cause of preventable deaths, reported cardiologist Dr. William Parmley and statistician Stanton Glantz, is passive smoking. The involuntary inhalation of tobacco smoke ranks only behind smoking itself and alcohol abuse as an avoidable cause of fatal illnesses. But that research dealt with adult deaths. Now a new report points ominously to health risks being incurred at earlier ages.

Children who live with adults who smoke, the report by the National Center for Health Statistics says, are almost twice as likely to have poor or only fair health compared to children from smoke-free homes. A clear correlation exists between family income and educational levels and the in-home level of exposure to passive smoking. About two-thirds of children from families with incomes below $10,000 were exposed to smoke, compared to only 36% where family income is $40,000 or higher. Black children were more likely than white to be exposed to cigarette smoke, Latino children less likely.

Conceivably, the poorer health reported for children of smoking parents has other contributing causes. But the numbers in the report--based on information provided by 5,300 parents of children 5 years old or younger--are too dramatic to be coincidental: In households where adults smoke, 4.1% of young children were considered to be in fair to poor health, against only 2.4% in homes where children aren't exposed to passive smoking.

"As the evidence on second-hand smoke continues to build," says Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, "parents . . . must weigh the health risks of smoking not only for themselves, but for their children as well." The stakes are high: preventable illnesses--some even life-threatening--at an early age, perhaps premature deaths later on. There are many innocent victims of passive smoking. Children are the most innocent of all.

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