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Study: Second-Hand Cigarette Smoke Causes Cavities in Children - 2003-03-11

Cigarette smoking is known to cause dental problems in adults. Now a new study shows that breathing passive smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, may cause more tooth decay in children.

A dental examination is a necessary routine most children probably wish to avoid.

If a child is exposed to cigarette smoke, he is much more likely to have tooth decay, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Children with tobacco smoke exposure were almost twice as likely as other children to have dental cavities in their baby teeth," said Dr. Andrew Aligne, is among a group of researchers from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the University of Rochester, New York, School of Medicine.

They reviewed U.S. government health data on about 3,500 children. The children, aged four to 11, not only had dental exams, but also had their blood tested for the presence of a compound called cotinine, a marker for the tobacco drug nicotine.

"Your body breaks down nicotine to excrete it, and one of the breakdown products is cotinine, and we can measure that, so it's a very good measure of how much tobacco you've been exposed to," he said.

The researchers found that about half of the children studied had cotinine levels in their blood consistent with exposure to tobacco smoke. Children with high cotinine levels were more likely to have cavities than children with low levels. This was true no matter how often the child went to the dentist and no matter what the family's income level, education level, or race.

"Poor kids are more likely to have cavities, but children who have high cotinine are more likely to have cavities whether they're poor or not," Dr. Aligne said.

Why would second-hand smoke cause cavities? Past studies show that nicotine increases the bacteria and plaque that cause tooth decay. Other research shows that environmental tobacco smoke can weaken the immune system so the body has trouble fighting bacteria, and that exposure decreases vitamin C levels in children, another risk factor for cavities. Dr. Aligne says his study is one more reason to keep children away from second-hand smoke.

"Twenty-seven percent of the children who have cavities in their baby teeth wouldn't have cavities if tobacco smoke exposure were eliminated," he said.

Preventing tooth decay in children makes economic sense, too. The American Medical Association says that it is the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States, costing more than four billion dollars a year to treat.