By Dr Kishore Kumar
Many of us have adjusted to the new-normal and have been spending more time at home during the ongoing pandemic. In homes where someone smokes, this also means more exposure to tobacco smoke or e-cigarette “vapour”. And if you have an expecting mother, infant, or a growing child at home, this can be especially harmful to a child’s developing lungs.
Secondhand smoke refers to the smoke when a smoker breathes out and the smoke that comes from the tip of burning cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and every other device that heats or burns tobacco. It contains many harmful chemicals and toxins and this toxic smoke exhaled is more dangerous. Leftover smoke, often called “thirdhand smoke” stays in a room long after a tobacco product is used. It clings to clothing, furniture, and carpets and is inhaled by children. Babies who are crawling can also have contact with chemicals in thirdhand smoke through their skin. Pregnant mothers because of their increased demand for oxygen and blood supply + children because their immature lungs appear to inhale all the toxic gases. It is important to know that nonsmokers who inhale secondhand smoke are affected by chemicals contained in the smoke.
In the world, around 6,00,000 people are thought to be dying every year due to passive smoking – (this is much more than our Covid-19 deaths) and one third of these are children, more so of smokers. Though Ireland was the first to ban smoking at workplaces, Australia was ahead in their ad campaigns to discourage smoking with gory details on the cigarette packs to warn smokers of the dangers (cancers) and also “ads” which depicted “Mom, Dad if you smoke, I also smoke” with children surrounded by passive smoking – a picture says thousand words they say – that cut down the smoking in pregnant parents as a whole.
Besides home, exposure to secondhand smoke occurs anywhere someone might be smoking. These places can include bars, cars, parties, recreational areas, restaurants and workplaces. Women who smoke have more difficulty becoming pregnant and have a higher risk of never becoming pregnant and smoking during pregnancy or inhaling it can cause tissue damage in the unborn baby, particularly in the lung and brain, and some studies suggests a link between maternal smoking and cleft lip.
How does secondhand smoke affect an expecting mother?
There is no safe level of secondhand smoke. If one is regularly exposed to secondhand smoke while pregnant, they will have an increased chance of having a stillbirth, a low-birth-weight baby, a baby with birth defects, and other complications of pregnancy. A pregnant mother smoking, in turn, causes harmful effects on the unborn babies – starting from growth retardation, increased risk of prematurity, increased risk of cancer in the offspring, higher chances of behavioral problems and higher chances of withdrawal syndrome also. This is because nicotine diffuses into fetal blood, amniotic fluid, and breast milk and negatively affects neurological development. Therefore, the foetuses and infants of mothers who smoke or are exposed to smoke are at high risk of ill health because of exposure to nicotine. Studies also suggest a relationship between tobacco and miscarriage. Carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke can keep the developing baby from getting enough oxygen.
Tobacco exposure puts children’s health at risk
Tobacco use affects the whole family. Secondhand and thirdhand smoke causes children to get more ear infections, respiratory infections, and other illnesses. Tobacco exposure also increases risk for asthma and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Smoking and vaping tobacco weakens the body’s natural ability to fight infection and increases risk of lung disease and heart conditions.
Effect on the family
Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke are at a 25–30 percent greater risk of heart disease and have a higher risk of stroke. Also, smoke exposure can make pre-existing cases of high blood pressure worse. Adults may develop respiratory diseases like asthma. If you already have asthma, being around tobacco smoke might make your symptoms worse. Secondhand smoke may even cause lung cancer in adults who don’t directly smoke tobacco products. Living or working with someone who smokes may increase your individual lung cancers as well.
Everyone knows smoking is injurious to health. Normally, there are always winning or losing arguments on most issues. But with smoking there is no winning argument. We need to understand that smoking is bad for health, smoking is bad for wealth, and smoking is bad for family.
Avoid going to places where you know people will be smoking indoors.
Ask drivers not to smoke in the car or take different transport.
Tell visiting smokers to smoke outside with the door closed behind them, make sure nearby windows are also closed.
Don’t allow anyone to smoke or vape inside your home, even when children aren’t present.
When a family member smokes outside, they should change clothes and wash their hands thoroughly.
Families who live in multi-unit housing should contact their landlord or building management association about enforcing smoke-free air laws in the building. Smoking should not be allowed in units and common areas.
We should put more pressure on the government to make all public places smoke free and for cigarette sales to be banned totally.
Remember — Try to quit. The best way to fully protect your family from tobacco exposure is to quit smoking. It might not be easy, but it is worth it.
(The writer is Founder Chairman & Neonatologist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Bengaluru & a healthcare delivery graduate from Harvard Business School)