Thank Mom for smoking?

Australian researchers find that mothers who smoke pass health risks to daughters.

Published October 23, 2006 6:31PM (EDT)

My mom has been a smoker since her teens, and like many women of her generation, she smoked through both her pregnancies. Occasionally, in an ineffective bid to get her to quit, I'll chide her about the ill effects of smoking on her and on those around her; in my more self-important and ungrateful moments, I'll cite my asthma as an example. Now, it looks like I have more ammunition for my poorly waged campaign: Australia's Herald Sun reports that smoking women pass on health and fertility risks to their daughters. "Women who smoke during pregnancy may be condemning their daughters to obesity and reproductive health problems in adult life," health reporter Michelle Pountey writes. Yow.

The specific evidence here is that in a recent study of 717 women born from 1973 to 1975 in Adelaide, Australia, 154 participants were found to have had mothers who smoked; those women were around 13 pounds heavier than their peers and were more likely to have irregular menstrual cycles. Smokers' daughters also had disproportionately wide waistlines relative to their hip measurements, which is an indicator of so-called central obesity and corresponds to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Interestingly, whether the daughter herself smokes apparently has no bearing on these factors; the irregularities seem to be connected to maternal smoking particularly.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that most of the subjects are still too young to have developed serious health problems as a result of their mothers' smoking, but that the weight and waistline factors, coupled with irregular periods, portend health and fertility problems in the future. University of Adelaide Research Center for Reproductive Health senior research fellow Michael Davies said the symptoms are "almost like a sentinel event that tells us about their underlying metabolic well-being." And that well-being is, well, not so good.

Researchers already knew that maternal smoking correlates with low birthweight and small chest circumference in infants, and that children of smokers are more likely to gain weight rapidly, become obese and have high blood pressure. So it's not like women of reproductive age are about to get a news flash that smoking during pregnancy is a bad idea; these new findings just add to the stack of reasons not to smoke. But the information may be useful for children of smokers, who could stand to pay special attention to their weight and menstrual cycles. I for one will be keeping watch for any sentinel events informing me of my metabolic well-being from here on out.

Meanwhile, though, my bigger concern remains my mom's health, since her lifetime of smoking predisposes her in a big way to heart disease, lung cancer and strokes. Really, her smoking is none of my business, and is hardly the only measure of her parenting abilities or the only factor contributing to my adult health. And it's debatable whether adding my voice to the critical chorus of our society's attitudes toward smoking will do any good. Still, I'm going to keep plugging in the hope of keeping her around longer. For anyone else looking to mount a coherent quitting campaign, there are some handy resources here.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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