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Life With Smoker Increases School Absenteeism, Study Says

Administrators hoping to combat school absenteeism in early grades may want to add an anti-smoking campaign to their arsenal: Children who live with smokers miss more school days than those who are not exposed to tobacco smoke at home, according to the first nationwide study of the topic.

Researchers from the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital found that illnesses related to secondhand smoke—from chest colds to ear infections—could account for one quarter to one third of all missed days by primary school-age children who live with smokers. Moreover, the study suggests smoking-related absences could increase the risk of children in poverty missing school.

The study, just published in the online issue of Pediatrics, analyzed a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 children, ages 6 to 11, whose parents participated in the 2005 National Health Interview Study. Within the sample, more than 14 percent of the children lived with at least one smoker, which primary study author Douglas Levy, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, estimated would represent about 2.6 million primary school children nationwide.

Levy and his colleagues found that children who lived with one smoker were absent on average 1.06 days more than children in non-smoking homes, and children who lived with two or more smokers missed 1.54 more days on average. They found higher rates for ear and respiratory illnesses among the children living with smokers, though the sample of children with asthma was too small to study links between household smoking and asthma attacks, which have been noted in other research.

"The health impact of living with a smoker is probably more extensive than our study shows, since the survey only asked about three conditions associated with smoke exposure and we know there are several more," Levy said in a statement on the study, "and since the absentee levels we report are averages, there probably are kids who miss much more school because they live with smokers than our study found. More research is needed to help understand the long-term health, developmental, and economic consequence of growing up in a home where people smoke."

The researchers found that nearly half of the smoking families also had low income. As I've reported previously, poverty is also associated with more frequent school absenteeism, suggesting the two problems may compound each other. Research shows chronic absenteeism in early grades can lead to lower academic performance and higher dropout rates later on.

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