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Tobacco Use Worsens Malnutrition in Developing Countries

After years of media attention, many people accept that smoking is bad for health and that those who are exposed to someone else's "second-hand" smoke are at increased risk for a wide range of health problems.

Now new research shows that in many developing countries, smoking can negatively affect the nutrition of children who live with a smoker. That's because in poor nations, smokers may spend a significant amount of household income to pay for cigarettes.

Economist Steven Block examined data from Indonesia about the spending habits of smokers. More than 60 percent of men in Indonesia smoke. Block found that among very poor families in rural central Java, "when there is a smoker in the household, they spent approximately 10 percent of their household budget on tobacco products."

The statistics even applied to the poorest families where food budgets take up between 60 to 70 percent of total income.

"For them to start allocating 10 percent of their household budget to cigarettes implies some pretty severe trades off, in terms of other things like food, perhaps housing, healthcare [and] education," Block said.

The data, collected by Helen Keller International, a not-for-profit group that tracks household consumption patterns, also showed that having a smoker in the family impacts the physical development of children, Block added.

"Because these tobacco expenditures are displacing food expenditures, we can document that the children are slightly shorter on average in those households," Block said.

However, he added that studies show that the stunting effects of diverting food funds for tobacco could be mitigated by mothers who were better educated to make wiser, more nutritional food purchases.

Block's research is published in the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change.