Children of smokers more likely to go hungry, according to study

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A medical study has identified a previously unknown risk to children of parents who smoke tobacco: hunger. Children who live in households with at least one adult smoker are more likely to be underfed, according to Dr. Cynthia Cutler-Triggs of the New York University School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital.

A new study links smoking adults to undernourished children.
Image: Giovanni Dall'Orto.

Dr. Cutler-Triggs's study measured food insecurity, a concept used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since the 1990s to measure the frequency of skipped meals and how often people go to bed hungry. Researchers examined data on 8,817 households from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The study parsed the survey, which tracked the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States, according to smoking habits and household income.

17 percent of children in low income smoking households suffered food insecurity, compared to an overall food insecurity rate of 11 percent among children. Severe food insecurity occurred among 3.2 percent of children in smoking households.

Only 0.9 of children from nonsmoking households had severe food insecurity. Similar rises in food insecurity occurred among adults from smoking households, but researchers were more concerned about the effects on the health of growing children.

We know that there are long-term consequences of food insecurity for children.

—Dr. Michael Weitzman

Dr. Michael Weitzman, chairman of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post, "We know that there are long-term consequences of food insecurity for children. They are more likely to do poorly in school, to have iron deficiency and anemia, and to have behavioral and social problems."

An estimated 2 percent to 20 percent of smokers' incomes goes for tobacco, which may compete with the grocery budget in some families. Household income accounted for some but not all of the difference in food security. Dr. Weitzman expressed concern that a continued recession may worsen the problem. "If the economic downturn persists, both food insecurity and adults smoking are likely to increase... [because smoking] is one of the hardest addictions to give up."