Is there an amount of smoking exposure that is safe for our kids?
In the past few decades, there have been countless publications about the health dangers of smoking. We learned about the hazards of secondhand smoking. The idea of third hand smoking is new to many, but real. Smoking affects all aspects of life from the time of conception to adult life. Smoking leads to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. It complicates pregnancies and worsens asthma symptoms. It also complicates all other chronic disease known to men, including diabetes, high blood pressure and neurodegenerative disorders of aging. Babies who are born to mothers who smoke during pregnancy are born small, often premature. They develop lung problems, and even learning and behavior problems.
What if the effects of smoking can be felt or passed along from one generation to another? In other words, what if the ills caused by smoking in today’s generation are from the fact that our grandparents and great-grandparents were smokers? This is exactly what a group of scientists from the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI) and the University of New Mexico (UNM) are working on. Using mice that are exposed to secondhand smoking, this group of scientists led by Drs. Mohan Sopori and Dr. Shashi Singh recently published a paper showing that mice that are exposed to secondhand smoking would have pups that show health problems due to smoking, even when these pups are raised in a smoke-free environment. Interestingly, the second generation of pups (the grandchildren of mice exposed to smoking) will also show signs of ill health, just because the grandparents were smokers, or exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke.
In my conversation with families and children that I care for at UNM Children’s Hospital, I often hear from caring moms and dads, and caring grandparents that they are trying their best to quit. They try to reduce the number of cigarettes that they use daily. Often, I hear that they try not to smoke in the presence of the kids. They acknowledge that smoking in the bathroom and in the car is still bad for their kids. So they smoke outside. They change clothing to help mitigate the smell. Our parents are caring parents. They want to protect their kids from the ills of cigarette exposure. So they try to make it as safe as possible. In other words, these parents are searching for the safest level of cigarette smoke exposure that is safe for the family.
Man and mice are different. However, based on this recent piece of research, it might be best not only to quit, but also to stay away altogether from cigarette exposure at all costs. The concept of third-hand smoking is the fact that chemical products from smoking remain in our carpets, chairs and other objects in the room long after smoking has ceased. Now, there is data to suggest that cigarettes chemicals get stuck in the hands of the smoker. Vigorous hand washing might not get rid of all the chemicals. It does not look like there is a safe level of smoking that is good for mankind, and it might not even be good for future generations, even if our offspring decide not to take on the habit of smoking or live in a smoke-free environment.
Last year, a paper in JAMA Internal Medicine by Dr. David Fairchild compared people who never smokes to people who consistently smoke less than 1 or 1-10 cigarettes a day. Strikingly, among 300,000 participants for this research, they found that even light smoking (less than 1 cigarette a day) increased mortality risks compared to those who never smoke.
There was a time when smoking was glamorous. Only a few decades ago, our most admired Hollywood stars were rarely seen without a cigarette in hand. Now, we know a little bit more about this habit. Being exposed to first-, second-, or third-hand smoking, or even the lowest level of nicotine exposure, is not good for the health of our kids. It might not even be safe for their offspring.
Vernat Exil is a pediatric cardiologist at UNM. Please send your questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.