New research reveals parents’ ignorance of the health impact of passive smoking on children

Thursday 31 May 2001

Embargo:  00.01 hrs. :  Thursday 31 May  2001 ­World No Tobacco Day

New research shows that parents are ignorant of the health risks to children of passive smoking, putting at risk the two in five children who live in a household with at least one smoker. [1]

In a survey conducted for SmokeFree London[2], there was a startlingly low awareness of the effects of passive smoking on children. For example, only 3% of parents interviewed listed cot death as a consequence of passive smoking and even for more well known health impacts such as asthma, only 24% of parents identified asthma as a likely impact. The risk of other respiratory illnesses was identified as a risk factor by only 22% of parents surveyed.

However, given the actual impact of passive smoking the lack of knowledge is alarming.    According to the World Health Organization, infants are at five times greater risk of cot death if their mothers smoke; there is a 20% to 40% increased risk of asthma among children exposed to tobacco smoke in the home; and children have a 70% increased risk of respiratory problems if their mother smokes.

The low awareness of the health risks means that parents who smoke are less likely to take steps to protect their children from breathing in tobacco smoke. However, in a report  published today to coincide with World NoTobacco Day, ASH reveals that in other countries, parents are beginning to take steps to reduce their children’s exposure to tobacco smoke. In Australia, for example, the percentage of smokers who restricted smoking in their home rose from 2% in 1989 to 32% in 1997.

Commenting on the report’s findings, ASH’s Research Manager Amanda Sandford, said:

“Parents must recognise that passive smoking causes ill-health in children and that they have a responsibility not to inflict harm on their children. Currently, 17,000 children are hospitalised every year as a result of passive smoking. Campaigns to raise awareness of the health impacts of passive smoking are urgently needed to reduce the thousands of cases of asthma, bronchitis, glue ear and other disorders experienced by children who are forced to breathe in adults’ tobacco smoke.”

“Clearly the best way to eliminate children’s exposure to passive smoking is for parents to stop smoking and to make their home smoke-free. However, if parents can’t or won’t quit there are practical steps they can take, such as not smoking in the presence of their child, to minimise children’s exposure to tobacco smoke.”

The ASH report on passive smoking notes that governments as well as individuals have a role to play in protecting children from passive smoking.

Amanda Sandford said: “Initiatives in other countries have shown that parents are more willing to modify their smoking behaviour in the presence of children once they are aware of the likely health impacts. Current government campaigns, such asthe ‘Sure Start’ initiative [3] should include guidance on dealing with passive smoking in the home. Around half of women who quit smoking during pregnancy start again after the birth of their child. Many mothers simply do not realise that their smoking is likely to harm their baby.”

ASH has also backed calls by the National Childminding Association for a reversal of the Government’s new regulations which now allow them to smoke in the presence of children with parents’ consent. ASH rejects the government’s view that the welfare of children will not be compromised by such a measure.

Gill Haynes, Chief Executive of the National Childminding Association (NCMA), said:

“Registered childminders have not asked for and do not want the so-called ‘right’ to smoke in front of children. It is bad for children’s health and a terrible example to set young children. We are very disappointed that the Government is allowing childminders – alone amongst regulated childcare providers – to offer such poor quality of service, and we will be campaigning to get the decision changed. By signing up to our own Quality Standards, registered childminders who belong to NCMA ensure a smoke-free environment while they are childminding. And we will be giving them information – to pass on to the parents of the children they care for – about the dangers of passive smoking.”



[1]  General Household Survey,1998.  Based on households containing any children aged under 16.

[2] Access telephone survey by BMRB International Ltd., commissioned by SmokeFree London.  The survey was conducted in January 2001 and consisted of a total sample of 2040 adults, of whom 22% (442) were parents.

[3] The Sure Start programme ­ a joint DfEE and Dept. of Health programme “aims to improve the health and well-being of families and children before and from birth, so children are ready to flourish when they go to school”. The health targets include a 10% reduction in the number of  mothers who smoke in pregnancy by 2004 inthe 500 Sure Start areas.

*** Today also marks the launch of  TRUST US­ WE ARE THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY (pdf) a joint ASH/Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids publication.  This is a guide to the millions of tobacco industry documents released through litigation in the USA. It reveals the truth about what was going on within the tobacco industry and how the companies said one thing publicly and something quite different in private.  Among the topics covered is a section on passive smoking.