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Raising awareness of secondhand smoke risks

By Dr. Don Hayes

Nearly 1.6 million Kentuckians underestimate the serious health risks posed by exposure to secondhand smoke, according to a statewide survey conducted by UK HealthCare. 

Nearly half (48.4 percent) of Kentucky adults surveyed reported they had been exposed to secondhand smoke indoors within the past week. In response, UK HealthCare has launched a five-year campaign to raise awareness of secondhand smoke. Below are answers to some commonly asked questions. 

Q:  Does secondhand tobacco smoke exposure affect the lungs of children? 

A:  Several research studies have demonstrated that exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke reduces or decreases lung function in children. Some research has even shown if a mother smokes while pregnant, the child will have decreased lung function. Children who are chronically exposed to secondhand smoke have higher rates of respiratory infections, more hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses, and higher risk for the development of asthma. Chronic exposure to tobacco smoke as a small child affects lung growth during childhood and will lead to lung problems later in life.   

Q:  Can smoking during pregnancy affect my future baby in ways other than lung problems?

A:  The growth of the fetus can be affected by the mother smoking while pregnant. Numerous chemicals found in tobacco go across the placenta into the fetus, including nicotine. As a result of this, babies born to mothers who smoked during the pregnancy are at higher risk to be born at low birth weight. There are also studies suggesting that cleft palates and congenital heart disease may be related to smoking during pregnancy.

Q:  Can smoking while I am pregnant affect my child’s behavior and school performance?

A:  Numerous research studies have shown that exposure of a fetus to tobacco smoke leads to behavior problems and poor conduct later in childhood. There is also research that demonstrates babies exposed to tobacco smoke during a pregnancy have lower intelligence scores or IQ.     

Q:  Does exposure to tobacco smoke affect asthma?

A:  Children who live with smokers have a higher risk of having asthma. These children also have more asthma attacks when they are exposed to tobacco smoke every day and are admitted to the hospital for asthma more often. In 2003, the National Survey of Children’s Health reported that Kentucky had the highest pediatric asthma attack rate in the United States at 7.2 percent. This high asthma attack rate is directly related to the high smoking rates in Kentucky.  

Q:  Can exposure to tobacco smoke cause my children to develop cavities?

A:  Children who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke chronically are at a higher risk to develop dental cavities or caries. Researchers have also found that children with cavities who are exposed to tobacco smoke have high levels of tobacco smoke byproducts in their urine.

For more information about UK HealthCare's secondhand smoke campaign, visit:

Dr. Don Hayes Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, a Pediatric Pulmonologist at Kentucky Children's Hospital, and an Adult Pulmonologist at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.