Posted by: rachelhampton | 02/04/2010

Hidden consequences of tobacco consumption

This is the first of a series of posts on cancer and health in developing countries as part of the Global Health Council’s new cancer initiative. For more information on our new cancer project, please email

Cancer, emphysema, chronic pulmonary disease, heart attacks, atherosclerosis, shortness of breath…. these are the diseases that first come to mind while considering the health impacts of tobacco use. But, there are many other hidden consequences of tobacco consumption, particularly for the world’s poorest children. Here are just a few that you may not have considered:

  • Purchasing cigarettes instead of food: For many impoverished families, spending money on tobacco products means forgoing other basic needs, such as food and education. This increases the risk of malnourishment, which has negative impacts on physical and cognitive development.
  • Employment and exploitation on tobacco farms: Poor children in developing countries are often employed by tobacco farmers to earn wages for their already destitute families. These children work long hours for low wages, and are exposed to many hazardous chemicals in pesticides. Children may also contract green tobacco sickness, a disease that is caused by the absorption of tobacco through the skin.
  • Loss of breadwinners due to tobacco-related illness: Many children lose one or both parents due to smoking-related illnesses. These families are left without a source of income, and often plunge into poverty. In an attempt to provide, young children, especially girls, often abandon their education and take up work either inside or outside of the home.
  • Fetal exposure during pregnancy: Smoking during pregnancy places both mothers and their children at risk for a variety of diseases and disorders, including stillbirths and stunted gestational development. It also increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), respiratory infection and irritation, childhood cancers, and oral cleft.

So, even if a child does not pick up a cigarette, they are indirectly exposed to a myriad of damaging health consequences from smokers is their families and communities. And, with more and more people smoking every year (approximately 1.6 billion over the next 25 years), it is likely that even more children will find themselves increasingly vulnerable to many of these hidden health risks. Finally, a growing number of children do consume tobacco products (82,000 to 99,000 per year), and these children will have to face many additional health problems than the ones mentioned above.


Lando HA, Hipple BJ, Muramoto M et. al. Tobacco is a global paediatric concern. Bulletin of the World Health Organiztion 2010;88;2-2

Shafey O, Eriksen M, Ross H, Mackay J. The tobacco atlas. 3rd edn. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2009

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