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Israeli researchers say toddler nicotine tests could curb parents’ smoking

Study finds some 7 out of 10 children from smoker homes had nicotine in body, showing repeated exposure to secondhand smoke, but parents can be convinced to stop smoking near kids

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A child breathing her father's smoke (iStock)
A child breathing her father's smoke (iStock)

Tests showing nicotine levels in the bloodstreams of preschool-age kids could help protect them and help snuff out their parents’ harmful behavior, Israeli researchers say.

Tel Aviv University public health experts are suggesting that policymakers internationally consider the idea of testing preschoolers, after conducting a study that emphasized the extent to which smokers’ kids are subject to secondhand smoke.

While the study found heightened levels of nicotine for most kids of smokers, it also found that just testing the children, without even informing families of the results, was enough to seemingly change parents’ behaviors.

“If children are tested at a young age for nicotine, results could shape parents’ behavior,” Prof. Laura Rosen, who led the 140-family study, told The Times of Israel. “Results showing that a child has nicotine in their body could make parents think once, twice and probably 20 times before smoking around their kids, whether in the house or on the porch.”

Her study, published in a peer-reviewed journal article in May, found that some seven out of 10 participants — children from Israeli households where a parent smokes — had nicotine deep in their hair.

“This is a biomarker which shows the children bear cumulative effects of secondhand smoking,” Rosen said, calling the finding “alarming.”

“We tested the inner shaft of the hair which reflects what goes on in the blood,” she added. “This isn’t just a matter of smoke landing on the hair in a short encounter, but rather reflects that these kids have been absorbing carcinogens from parents’ smoke into their blood over several months.”

According to Health Ministry statistics, in Israel some 52% of Arab children and 25% of Jewish children are exposed to tobacco smoke at two months of age.

One of the main obstacles to protecting kids from secondhand smoke is that parents are often in denial about its impact, said Rosen, founder of her university’s Tobacco Control Research Forum. She added that they tend to underestimate the extent of distance and precautions needed when smoking in order to protect children.

A woman smokes a cigarette outside a cafe. Israel took another step towards becoming smoke-free when strict regulations came into effect that limit smoking in public places. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a woman smoking a cigarette outside an Israeli cafe. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

She argued that if health authorities internationally were to introduce a routine nicotine test for preschoolers, it could prove a game-changer in terms of parents’ conduct.

“Let’s test kids at age four for nicotine, as parents who smoke simply don’t understand that the smoke really does get to their children,” she said. “But we believe once they clearly see it does, many will change their behavior.”

She noted that in cases where high nicotine levels are found, steps could be taken to protect the kids.

“It can allow professionals to give them ways to protect the kids, like showering and toothbrushing after smoking,” he said. “It may also lead to parents who smoke using strategies to help when they need to be with the kids, but have a nicotine craving, like chewing nicotine gum instead of smoking cigarettes for those moments.”

The study found that nicotine levels found in children dropped for both an intervention group, in which parents received results and comprehensive training on keeping kids from smoke, and for a control group in which the kids were tested, but parents were not offered the results and training until after the study concluded.

“In both groups, when we tested the children for a second time, after six months, both groups had improved — there was a statistically significant reduction in exposure to nicotine among the kids,” she said.

“We learn from this that results aside, just knowing that kids are undergoing nicotine testing, and having this issue on the family’s agenda, can have an impact. That process of evidence being gathered on what’s going on in their kids’ body is something that can really make parents think, and challenge their behavior.”

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