Childhood Exposure to Secondhand Smoke Increases Thickness of Artery Walls

Results of a long-term study indicate that when both parents smoke, children's absorption of secondhand smoke leads to increased artery wall thickness.

Exposure to both parents’ secondhand smoke can increase the thickness of artery walls and add an extra 3.3 years to the age of blood vessels when children reach adulthood, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal.

Researchers studied the participants of the Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study and the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health study from Australia. The 3776 total participants were aged between 3 and 18 years old at the start of their studies, 1980 and 1985 respectively.

The investigators collected questions about the children’s parents’ smoking habits and once particpants entered adulthood, ultrasounds were used to measure the thickness of the children’s artery walls. Compared to participants whose parents did not smoke (average: 0.637 mm), carotid intima-media thickness (IMT) in adulthood was 0.015 mm thicker in children exposed to secondhand smoke.

“While the differences in artery thickness are modest, it is important to consider that they represent the independent effect of a single measure of exposure — that is, whether or not the parents smoked at the start of the studies – some 20 years earlier in a group already at greater risk of heart disease,” Seana Gall, PhD, research fellow in cardiovascular epidemiology at the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania and the University of Tasmania said in a statement.

The results of the study were not conclusive about the effect of one parent smoking. The researchers hypothesize that the parent may do so outside, or away from the family, which would have a lesser effect on the child’s absorption of secondhand smoke.

In their paper, the authors advocate strongly for the banning of smoking in cars where a child may be present. They argue that while secondhand smoke at home is declining, there are inequalities among various socioeconomic groups. By targeting areas where exposure is high, they write, such inequalities could be reduced.