Second hand smoke and cancer risk
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By Alanna Kennedy

A Bad Start

Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at higher risk of lung cancer

By Alanna Kennedy

It’s no secret that secondhand smoke and children don’t mix. Studies have found that children who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to develop asthma, pneumonia and a host of other respiratory problems. Now, there’s even more evidence for keeping kids away from cigarettes. A new study confirms that children who breathe secondhand smoke are at greater risk of developing lung cancer as adults than children who grow up in a smoke-free environment.

Secondhand smoke public service announcementThe study, published in the December 2009 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, asked 624 lung cancer patients and 348 individuals who did not have the disease about their childhood exposure to secondhand smoke, family medical history, history of tobacco use, diet, and alcohol consumption, according to Susan E. Olivo-Marston, an epidemiologist at the Ohio State University in Columbus, who led the research team. The analysis showed that the odds of developing lung cancer among people who had been exposed to secondhand smoke as children were more than twice those of people who had not been exposed.

The idea that a child exposed to cigarette smoke would be at higher risk for lung cancer as an adult may seem obvious. But, says co-investigator Peter Shields, an oncologist at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., “it’s been very difficult to prove … because it’s not easily measurable.” Part of the problem is that there isn’t a large population of people to study. “Most adult smokers have parents who are smokers,” he explains. “If you’re exposed as a kid and then you become a smoker yourself, the overwhelming exposure is from your smoking. You really can only do a study like this in people who never smoked.”

To replicate their results, Olivo-Marston and her colleagues also looked at data from a study done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on lung cancer patients who had never smoked. In that set of data, they found the same pattern: a strong correlation between secondhand smoke exposure and lung cancer risk. “To epidemiologists, the real news is when the results get replicated,” says Shields. “That’s when you know you can start making public health and clinical recommendations.”

For anti-smoking advocates, the research couldn’t be more clear: Children need to be protected from secondhand smoke exposure. “This adds to the weight of evidence that we need to make all workplaces and public places smoke free, so that no children or adults have to breathe in secondhand smoke,” says Danny McGoldrick, the vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.–based anti-tobacco advocacy organization. “And this goes beyond the public policy side. We need to educate parents to make their homes smoke free.”


(image: California Department of Public Health)