Poisoning Children Even Before They Are Born

Editor’s note: The tag line at the bottom of this story has been updated to correct a mistake. Terry Wallace, the author of this opinion piece, is a participant with the Cardinal Institute, not the CATO Institute.

Would you knowingly and deliberately poison your own child?

Would you allow anyone else to repeatedly inject your child with a poisonous substance?

Don’t answer too fast, because that is exactly what’s happening every day across America.

Cigarette smoking kills, wounds and damages children just as certainly as any unbalanced maniac who points a gun at their heads and pulls the trigger.

Mothers who smoke during pregnancy are doing just that, as they share the poisons from cigarette smoke through the common blood supply flowing from the placenta to the unborn child. Despite clear and compelling information, this goes on 24 hours per day for the 270-day gestation period, even though it is clear that smokers’ babies have a higher likelihood of preterm delivery and low birth weight.

Both are markers for the panoply of other limiting or handicapping conditions, including subaverage general intellectual functioning, learning disabilities, and a whole range of behavior disorders, hyperactivity, and reading and math disabilities.

According to The American Lung Association, the approximately 20 percent of pregnant women who choose to smoke kill about 1,000 babies each year in America. Their cigarettes transmit deadly poisons, such as carbon monoxide, lead, arsenic, nicotine, formaldehyde and hundreds of other toxins to the fetus with every bit of smoke they inhale. By choosing to smoke, they cause nearly one-third of low-birth weight infants, about one-seventh of preterm deliveries and about one-in-ten of all infant deaths, along with increased risk of miscarriages and stillborn deliveries.

In addition, smoking mothers who nurse continue to give their babies breast milk that is laced with cigarette smoke poisons and provide second-hand smoke for the infants to inhale on a regular and ongoing basis.

This results in more colds and respiratory problems, including pneumonia and bronchitis, as well as long-term physical and general intellectual functioning deficits. Accumulated toxins from third-hand smoke are often concentrated in clothing, bedding, furniture and other household items, allowing physical/oral transmission to the infant and increasing susceptibility to asthma and cancer.

Studies also indicate nicotine can have a negative impact on brain development and functioning. Observable effects include significantly reduced thickness of the cerebral cortex, smaller cerebral cortex neurons, and reduced brain weight. Also noted is an overall decrease in dendritic branching (connections to other brain cells). Studies show, too, that the greater the dose of nicotine, the greater the effects upon the offspring. This research provides an excellent biological model to support the many other studies linking increased hyperactivity, attention deficits, lower IQ, and learning disabilities in children with parents who smoked during pregnancy. Other impacts of smoking can include conduct disorders such as, ADD, ADHD, and Oppositional Defiant behavior which can carry through to adulthood.

In many states, education officials are struggling to improve literacy rates, as well as overall academic performance of children in schools and the ongoing impact of smoking makes things even more difficult. Recent research indicates children of mothers who smoked during pregnancy score about 20 percent below their peers in reading, a key factor in learning.

West Virginia leads the nation in the rate of smoking among expectant mothers, at nearly 30 percent, and the rate in some of the state’s counties exceeds 40 percent. Most of Appalachia and many major cities are not far behind.

Exacerbating things even further, abuse of prescription and illicit drugs, alcohol use and nutritional factors combine with smoking to virtually guarantee developmental damage to many children; damage that carries through to adulthood. The smoking impact cuts across all socio-economic and racial strata.

In taxpayer terms, the additional costs in special and compensatory education, medical resources, and what are often lifetime disability and medical payments are staggering and continuing to grow.

Until we remedy this situation, overall educational progress will continue to lag for many children despite improvements in curriculum, more effective teaching efforts and methods, and the infusion of even more money.

The shock and revulsion of more than a thousand child gun deaths annually, including school shootings, has evoked a passionate national outcry for some sort of action. Killing, wounding and damaging even more children with cigarettes, though, seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Dr. Terry Wallace serves as a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia and is a participant with the Cardinal Institute.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)