Second-hand smoke: what is the impact on children in England?

10 February 2014

"According to the British Lung Foundation, nearly half a million children in England are exposed to potentially toxic levels of second hand smoke in family cars every week."

"300,000 GP appointments every year result from children suffering from the effects of second hand smoke, including young people who've had to endure passive smoking in the back of a car."

Luciana Berger, Shadow Minister for Public Health, the Guardian, 5 February 2014

MPs are due to vote on whether to back a ban on smoking in a car containing anyone under the age of 18.

The amendment to be voted on, attached to the Children and Families Bill, received widespread coverage today quoting recent claims about the extent of the issue.

300,000 child GP consultations a year caused by second-hand smoke

The figure comes from a 2010 report by the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians. It looked at the number of diseases in children caused by passive smoking in the home back in 2008.

The report used an analysis of published medical research to determine the likelihood that exposure to second-hand smoke would cause a child to contract any one of a number of illnesses.

It then combined data on the number of children suffering each illness from a database of health information called the Health Improvement Network (THIN), with official population estimates to calculate the number of visits to GPs by children in 2008.

They estimated around 304,000 GP consultations were linked to passive smoking. The main reasons included 160,000 cases of middle ear infections and 99,000 consultations for asthma.

It's important to bear in mind not only that the figures are now six years old, but also that they're not necessarily specific to today's vote on smoking in cars. While the admissions may involve second-hand smoking in cars and public places, here they're primarily based on secondary smoking in the home.

Half a million children exposed to smoke in the family car every week

Ms Berger cites the British Lung Foundation (BLF) — which is campaigning for the amendment — as the source of the claim.

The BLF in turn took their information from the Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England survey published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) in 2012.

Over 7,500 children aged between 11-15 were surveyed: 6% said they were exposed to second-hand smoke in the family car every day or most days, while a further 8% were exposed once or twice a week.

Together this makes up 14% of secondary school children. Given there are just over 3 million children aged 11-15 in England as a whole, applying this proportion to the wider population suggests around 430,000 children are exposed to second-hand smoke in the family car at least once a week.

Again, there are drawbacks with taking the data too far. These numbers do not cover most children between the ages of 16 and 18, or those under 11, making it difficult to put an exact figure on the number of children affected. So though the Shadow Public Health Minister's 'nearly half a million children' is some way off the figures we do have, they're likely to be an underestimate of the scale of the issue.


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