New drive to prevent youngsters from inhaling second-hand smoke at home

There has a rise in the number of smokers despite the fewer public places at which to light up and one of the world's highest cigarette prices. Sales have hit a four-year high in 2009: 2.44 billion cigarettes, or 6.7 million a day. This was a 12-per-cent rise over 2008's figure of 2.17 billion sold; in 2005, it was 2.09 billion.

Research on school children by S C Emmanuel, C K Ho and A J Chen found that the median age at which a child experiments with smoking is 12. The median age at which current smokers began to smoke regularly was 14. “Sheer curiosity” and “to relax” were among the main reasons for picking up smoking. Fathers also played a dominant part in the development and continuation of smoking among those who had experimented with cigarettes before.

About 52 per cent of young smokers reported that their fathers were smokers. According to a 2005 survey by website Medical News Today, children whose parents smoke (or smoked) were twice as likely to pick up smoking from the ages of 13 to 21. This emphasizes the role of parents and their influence within the household. Children are potentially likely to take after their parents or adult role models, sometimes even unknowingly.

Although peer pressure plays a big role in the influence of tobacco among youth today, it is shocking to know that parents are the main triggers say researchers. According to the Health Promotion Board, children whose parents are smokers themselves are four times more likely than children with non-smoking parents to pick up smoking in the long run.

Parents who smoke in the presence of their children could also expose them to various health issues due to the second-hand smoke. According to figures from the Royal College of Physicians, millions of children in the UK are exposed to second-hand smoke that puts them at increased risk of lung disease, meningitis and cot death. Second-hand smoking results in over 300,000 doctors visits among children every year, 9,500 hospital visits and costs the NHS more than £23.6 million annually.

The survey of 1,000 children aged eight to 13 whose parents are smokers was released to support the campaign. It found 98% wished their parents would stop smoking, 82% wished their parents would not smoke in front of them at home and 78% wished they would not smoke in the car. Meanwhile, 41% said cigarette smoke made them feel ill while 42% said it made them cough.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said, “We all know smoking kills but not enough people realise the serious effect that second-hand smoke can have on the health of others, particularly children. This campaign will raise awareness of this danger and encourage people to take action to protect others from second-hand smoke. This is just one part of our wider strategy on tobacco. We need to do more. That is why next week we will end tobacco displays in large shops. We will also be consulting on plain packaging this spring.”

Dr Charles Godden, consultant pediatrician at the Royal Surrey Hospital, said, “I see children every week with conditions which are made worse by second-hand smoke. Most parents would be horrified to know that even a short car journey where an adult has been smoking would result in breakdown products of nicotine in their child's urine.”

Professor Terence Stephenson, President of the RCPCH, said, “The state does have a duty to protect children's health and intervene where necessary. Other progressive legislation such as seatbelts in cars and banning drink-driving, once met with skepticism, have proven to make a significant difference. I have no doubt an outright ban on smoking in cars would have the same positive results.”

Prof Dame Sally Davies, England's chief medical officer, said second-hand smoke could cause a range of health problems. “Smoking damages our lungs, causes cancers and is now the biggest risk for cot death. Parents who smoke need to think about the effect it has on their family. Giving up smoking or making sure you have a completely smoke free home and car is the only way to protect your family,” she said. Support and advice is available on the NHS if people want to give up smoking, she said.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said, “There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke and children are at risk of a range of diseases such as asthma, ear infections, and potentially fatal meningitis as a result of breathing in second-hand smoke in the home or car.”

New TV and radio adverts in England will show that smoking by a window or the back door does not protect youngsters from harmful effects. The new TV campaign is based on research which shows that most second-hand smoke is in the form of invisible, odorless gases. It shows a young baby being surrounded by cigarette smoke as her mother smokes by the nearby kitchen door. Another advert depicts children in a car breathing in second-hand smoke from their father's cigarette. He is smoking in the driver's seat with the window down.

But Simon Clark, director of the smokers' group Forest, said the government had gone too far. “It's only a matter of time before loving parents who smoke in or around their homes are accused of child abuse and risk having their children taken into care. Tobacco is a legal product. If the government doesn't want children exposed to even a whiff of smoke they will have to amend the smoking ban to allow designated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs. That is the only sensible solution. Meanwhile, are they going to ban barbecues and bonfires?” he said.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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