World No Tobacco Day: How Passive Smoking Harms Children

On the occasion of No Tobacco Day, Paediatric Pulmonologist, Dr Gowri Shankar Natraj shares his views on the dangers of passive smoking.

By Dr Gowri Shankar Natraj

World No Tobacco Day: How Passive Smoking Harms Children

World No Tobacco Day is observed every year on 31 May by the World Health Organization (WHO) to highlight the health risks associated with tobacco use. The theme this year is Tobacco – a threat to development. Dr Gowri Shankar Natraj, Paediatric Pulmonologist at Dr. Mehta's Hospital, tells us why smoking impairs the physical and emotional development of children. He emphasises on the need to increase awareness about the harmful effects of tobacco on the individual, his family and the society.

Smokers pollute the air, which affects everyone around them, in particular, infants and young children.

Passive smoking

Smoke exhaled by a smoker and that arising from smoldering tobacco products such as beedis, cigarettes and cigars is known as environmental tobacco smoke. Exposure to this smoke is called passive smoking.

Health effects of teen smoking

Passive smoking is more harmful than active smoking.

Effect of passive smoking on the unborn child

1) Exposure to passive smoking during pregnancy can increase the chances of a child developing wheezing up to the age of 2 years when compared with unexposed children.

2) The risk of developing wheezing further increases when a child is exposed to postnatal passive smoke, in addition to his mother’s exposure during pregnancy. It is highest in children exposed to both types of passive smoking, and whose mothers also smoked during pregnancy. 

How exposure to passive smoking at a young age increases the risk for diseases

Passive smoking can lead to several complications like increased respiratory tract and ear infections, increase in the number and severity of asthma episodes, and increase in the risk of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in the first few months of life.

Side-stream smoke is smoke emanating from the burning end of a tobacco product. It contains a higher concentration of some toxins than mainstream smoke (inhaled by the smoker directly). Exposure to this smoke during childhood is bad for arterial function and structure. It may also result in premature atherosclerosis (deposition of fat in the blood vessels), leading to cardiovascular complications. Also, second-hand smoke exposure during childhood is associated with other metabolic risk factors such as obesity, dyslipidemia and insulin resistance.

In utero exposure to tobacco smoke may indirectly influence cancer risk by modifying biological pathways associated with carcinogenesis. However, more research is needed to firmly establish this association. But exposure to smoke from childhood increases lifetime exposure to carcinogens, thus increasing the risk for developing cancer.

Note: The risk of wheezing associated with tobacco smoke exposure is higher in children who are allergic, compared with those with a nonallergic family history.

Message to parents who smoke

To stay healthy and protect your family from the ill effects of smoking, quit smoking forever, and not just on World No Tobacco Day.