A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Study shows secondhand smoke linked to school absence, ER visits and respiratory issues in teens

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

It’s long been established that exposure to secondhand smoke is harmful to babies and young children. Now a study shows that it’s bad for teenagers, too.

The University of Cincinnati study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics, analyzed data from 7,389 non-smoking teens aged 12-17 who did not have asthma and had completed the 2017 Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study, which measures tobacco use behavior and related health outcomes.

About a third of the teens in the study reported that they were around others who smoked for at least an hour a day for the previous seven days, at home, in the car, at school or outdoors.

(Photo from Psychology Today)

The researchers found that the teens who were around secondhand smoke at least an hour a day were more likely to report shortness of breath, difficulty exercising, wheezing during or after exercise, and a dry cough at night.

They were also more likely to have missed school due to illness, and less likely to report good overall and physical health. They were also more likely to have visited an emergency room or urgent care center in the past year.

“Eliminating tobacco smoke exposure is the only way to protect nonsmokers,” the researchers concluded. They note that despite increased tobacco control, 9.6 million U.S. teens are still exposed to tobacco smoke.

The 2010 recent Kentucky Youth Tobacco Survey found that 36 percent of Kentucky high-school students reported exposure to secondhand smoke while in a car during the week before they took the survey, and 45 percent reported being exposed in a room.

And while that was eight years ago, not much has changed in Kentucky when it comes to adult smoking rates since then. In 2010 that rate was 24.8 percent, compared to 24.5 percent today. About 14.3 percent of Kentucky’s high-school students are smokers.

Kentucky is slowly inching its way to stronger tobacco control.

This year the legislature raised the cigarette tax 50 cents per pack, to $1.10. That was the biggest increase in Kentucky history, but health advocates wanted a $1 increase, noting that research shows any lesser increase would have no real health benefits because cigarette companies can counter such increases with discounts and coupons. The Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow has said a $1 hike would have prevented 23,200 Kentucky young people from becoming adult smokers.

Kentucky has also struggled to pass a statewide smoking ban, though nearly seven in 10 Kentuckians support one. Gov. Matt Bevin says that this should be a local decision. Only 35 percent of Kentucky’s population is by local smoking bans, according to the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy.

Ellen Hahn, a University of Kentucky nursing professor and director of the center, said in an e-mail that that means 65 percent of Kentuckians are likely exposed to secondhand smoke in public places and workplaces. “We know that when communities pass 100 percent smoke-free laws, more people quit smoking and smoking prevalence drops,” Hahn said.

While 72 of the state’s 173 school districts have adopted 100 percent tobacco-free school policies, and 87 percent of Kentucky adults favor tobacco-free campuses, legislation for a statewide policy has not made progress in the legislature.

Statewide smoke-free policies would protect the almost 121,000 Kentucky teens who are in the workforce, as well as protecting them from toxins left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke, called third-hand smoke, which can result in substantial nicotine exposure, studies have shown.

“Laws that prohibit smoking and vaping in all workplaces are among the most effective policies that lawmakers can enact to protect the public from secondhand smoke,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “Comprehensive smoke-free laws that include e-cigarettes also help change the culture so that tobacco use is no longer the social norm.”

The researchers note that their study can only show an association between teen exposure to secondhand smoke and the aforementioned health issues, and say that more research is needed.

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