Why Parents Who Smoke Put Their Kids at Risk

Kids exposed to parents' cigarette smoking face greater risk of obesity and mental health problems.

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Everyone knows that cigarette smoking is bad for your health. And it's bad for your children's health, too, increasing the risk that your offspring will suffer from obesity and mental health problems. Children of mothers who smoked while pregnant are more likely to have behavioral problems by age 4, according to researchers at the University of Bristol in England. And pregnant women aren't the only ones who should worry about the ill effects of smoking on children. Kids whose fathers smoked while they were in the womb were more likely to later become obese, according to researchers in Hong Kong. Both sets of scientists looked at data on thousands of children, and both papers were published in the July issue of Pediatrics.

Scientists have long known that pregnant women who smoke increase the risk that their children will be born prematurely, have low birth weight, decreased lung function, and developmental delays. Moms who smoke after a child is born also increase the odds that their child will have pneumonia, asthma, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. But this new information suggests that children face a higher risk of obesity, which itself is a key risk factor for diabetes and heart disease, from secondhand smoke as well as maternal smoking.

By contrast, the British researchers found that children had more conduct problems, including aggression and defiance, if their mothers smoked during pregnancy, but not if their dads did. That may be because exposure to the many toxins in cigarette smoke may affect prenatal development. Or it could be because mothers who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have behavioral problems themselves. Children learn behavior, good and bad, from parents, and there's also a genetic component to behavior, as well. The researchers didn't have information on the behavior of moms in this study, so they can't prove that smoking was the cause of the preschoolers' behavior problems. But quitting smoking would end that worry, and that risk. Tobacco smoke is one environmental toxin that parents can control. (In May, researchers reported on another example of a possible link between environmental toxins and behavioral problems finding that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides in fruits and vegetables are more likely to have ADHD.)

Pediatricians are being encouraged to help parents quit, including offering prescriptions for nicotine-replacement patches or gum. You don't have to wait until your child's next visit to find out what help is available: call 1-800-Try-To-Stop or check out www.ceasetobacco.org.