Children are more likely to develop asthma if their father was exposed to tobacco smoke growing up, a new study has found.
And they have an even greater risk of developing the common lung disease if their father was a smoker, according to the international team of researchers.
The findings, published in the European Respiratory Journal, provide further evidence of the possible existence of a “transgenerational effect” in which smoking can damage the health of people born two generations later.
“We found that the risk of non-allergic asthma in children is increased by 59% if their parents were exposed to secondhand smoke during childhood, compared to children whose parents were not exposed.
“The risk was even higher, at 72%, if the parents were exposed to secondhand smoke and went to smoke themselves,” said Jiacheng Liu of the University of Melbourne, one of the co-authors.
The study was carried out by a team of Australian, British and Sri Lankan researchers.
Dr. Dinh Bui, another co-author, said: “Our findings show how the harm caused by smoking can have an impact not only on smokers, but also on their children and grandchildren.”
Given their findings, men should try to avoid smoking if possible to reduce the risk of affecting the health of their own children or their offspring, Bui added.
Jon Foster, health policy manager at Asthma + Lung UK, said: “This research is really shocking as it shows that the negative effects of smoking can last for generations. The fact that children born today have 59% more risk of developing asthma if their father was exposed to secondhand smoke as a child demonstrates the enormous impact smoking has on other people’s health.”
The findings are based on the researchers’ analysis of detailed data on the health of 1,689 pairs of parents and their offspring collected as part of the Longitudinal Health Study of Tasmania in Australia.
The paper says: “Our findings suggest that when children are passively exposed to their parents’ tobacco smoke before the age of 15, their children have an increased risk of non-allergic childhood asthma, but not asthma allergic
“Paternal smoke exposure before age 15 years is an important risk factor for nonallergic asthma.”
Professor Jonathan Grigg, chairman of the European Respiratory Society’s tobacco control committee, who was not involved in the study, said it added to the evidence of the intergenerational risk of smoking.
Ministers needed to protect children from further harm so they took stronger action to curb smoking, he said. He called for smoking cessation services to be increased and for adults to be routinely asked at any NHS appointment if they smoke, and offered help to quit if they do.
Bui said smoking-induced epigenetic changes (modifications in genes where someone’s DNA sequence is not altered) were the most likely reason for the significantly increased risk of asthma in children whose fathers smoked secondhand smoke in his youth.
“Epigenetic changes can be caused by environmental exposures such as smoking, and can be inherited for future generations. Specifically, when a child is exposed to tobacco smoke, it can cause epigenetic changes in their germ cells. These are the cells that go [on] to produce sperm.
“Later, these changes will be inherited by their children, who in turn can damage their health, including an increased risk of developing asthma. In children, germ cells continue to develop until puberty, and this it’s a vulnerable period when exposure to tobacco smoke can affect cells and cause epigenetic changes,” Bui said.
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