With the recent push to increase the tobacco tax in the state of Kansas by a dollar or more per pack of cigarettes, citizens should remember that this issue is not just about reducing the number of people who smoke and improving their health. It is also about the children who are involuntarily exposed to tobacco smoke.
Over the past few decades, there has been a significant decrease in environmental exposure to secondhand smoke during childhood. However, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015, 1 in 3 children in the U.S. are still exposed to tobacco smoke. The 2013-14 Kansas Youth Tobacco Survey reported that nearly a quarter of middle-schoolers are exposed to tobacco smoke in their homes or in a vehicle during a normal week.
To understand why tobacco control efforts need continued public support, we must recognize the effects on children and adolescents who are forced to be in the same car, home or environment as someone smoking a cigarette. Children can be exposed to two kinds of secondhand smoke. The first is mainstream smoke, or smoke blown out into the air after inhalation through the filter of the cigarette. The second is side-stream smoke, or smoke coming off the burning end of the cigarette.
Side-stream smoke accounts for about 75 percent of the smoke generated by the cigarette, as shown by a study in 1999. Some research suggests that side-stream smoke is significantly more dangerous than mainstream smoke due to very high concentrations of hazardous chemicals such as acrolein (commonly used as an herbicide) and ammonia. These dangerous chemicals make up what is often referred to as “tar.” A 2004 study suggests that side-stream smoke may be more dangerous than actually smoking the cigarette because it contains higher concentrations and potency of the worst chemicals found in tobacco smoke.
The effects of tobacco smoke exposure on childhood asthma, ear infections and risk of cancer are well known. However, the damage to a child’s heart and cardiovascular system is just as important and noticeable by cardiologists. Research in 1996 measured the function of arteries in three groups of people: current smokers, people exposed to secondhand smoke and people with no smoke exposure. They found that people exposed to secondhand smoke had more artery damage than current smokers did.
What’s more alarming is the damage to the arteries from secondhand smoke is still noticeable decades later.
Further, data from the 1998 Atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries) Risk in Communities Study showed that people exposed to secondhand smoke had similar amounts of damage to their arteries as people who were former smokers. In children specifically, there is a clear relationship between tobacco smoke exposure and vascular damage, where greater smoke exposure leads to increased vascular damage.
Besides harming the child’s lungs, heart and vascular system, this secondhand smoke has harmful effects on children’s blood pressure and cholesterol, while also increasing the risk of childhood obesity and cancer. These effects last into adulthood. Efforts to control tobacco smoke, including the push to increase the tobacco tax, are reaching to do more than simply protect a smoker’s health. They also aim to protect the health of children and adolescents who do not have the ability to leave an unhealthy environment at will. Legislative and community efforts should continue to develop measures to protect our vulnerable youth.
David White, Ph.D., is an exercise physiologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital who specializes in cardiovascular disease risk in children and adolescents.