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Study: Childhood exposure to secondhand smoke linked to mental health problems

April 21, 2011
by News release
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A new study shows that children exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke have statistically higher levels of mental health problems, including major depressive disorder (MDD), ADHD, and "conduct disorder."

Authors of the study, including researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), report that "the findings presented herein provide additional evidence of the harmful effects of SHS exposure on children and adolescents," and suggest that, if parents could be persuaded to smoke outside the home, the rate of mental illness would decline.

"This new study, which is consistent with other studies showing that secondhand smoke may cause or exacerbate mental disorder symptoms in adults, provides still another reason why parents should not smoke around their own children, or permit their offspring to visit in homes where people are smoking," says the public interest law professor who started—and now helps to lead—the movement to ban smoking wherever it affects others.

The study is especially compelling because it accurately determined the children's exposure to secondhand smoke by measuring the serum level of cotinine (the breakdown product of nicotine) in their bodies, and finding that it strongly correlates with symptoms of "DSM-IV major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorder after adjusting for survey design, age, sex, race/ethnicity, poverty, migraine, asthma, hay fever, maternal smoking during pregnancy, and allostatic load."

A related editorial in the same peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, reported that secondhand smoke exposure impacted cognitive and behavioral development. An earlier study of children in Bavaria concluded that exposure to tobacco smoke in the home was associated with increased risk of behavior problems among preschool children.

A different

study in Cincinnati found that child behavior problems increased with increasing exposure to secondhand smoke, with the increase in boys being large enough to be statistically significant. Public interest law professor John Banzhaf helped to begin a very successful movement which has now persuaded judges in a majority of states to issue court orders prohibiting smoking in homes to protect children involved in custody proceedings, and another movement which helped get more than a dozen states to ban smoking in homes when foster children are present. This new study will help strengthen both movements, he predicts.

Even if these studies, like most studies, are not absolutely conclusive, parents should still err on the side of caution and protect their children not only from the now-clearly-established risks secondhand tobacco smoke poses to the physical health of their children, but also to the newly emerging danger to their mental health," says Banzhaf.

Parents should not risk condemning their own children to a lifetime of mental health problems simply because they are too lazy or too inconsiderate to limit their offspring's exposure to a substance known to cause cancer, and which probably also causes mental illness, argues Banzhaf.

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