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Kids Whose Parents Smoke More Likely to Light Up

May 13, 2014 04:00 PM EDT

The longer parents smoke, the more likely that their kids will pick up the unhealthy habit and become heavy smokers themselves, a new study shows.

These findings suggest that parents who smoke should quit as early as possible to lessen the likelihood that their children will take up smoking when they're older, the researchers said.

"It is difficult to dissuade children from smoking if one or both parents are heavily dependent on cigarettes," lead investigator Darren Mays, an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said in a press release.

"It is also important for parents who smoke to know that their children may model the behavior, particularly if a parent is nicotine-dependent," he added.

Cigarette smoking kills more than 440,000 Americans each year, with an estimated 49,000 of these deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. This should encourage parents to quit smoking not just to deter their kids from smoking, but to protect them from fatal secondhand smoke exposure.

Mays says nicotine dependence is characterized by strong cravings to smoke, needing more nicotine to feel the same effects and feeling discomfort (withdrawal) without the drug.

More than 400 parents and their participating adolescent children ages 12 to 17 were interviewed at the beginning of the study. After a follow-up with the children one year and five years later, the results showed that the more years a child was exposed to a parent's nicotine dependent smoking, the greater the risk that they would begin smoking or experimenting with cigarettes.

According to a Reuters report, teens whose parents were current smokers were 10 times more likely to themselves become regular smokers at an early age.

"We believe social learning plays an important role in intergenerational smoking," Mays noted in the press release.

The results don't prove that parents smoking caused their kids to take up the habit, the study team acknowledges, but there's no real debate about whether there is a link between parental and child smoking.

"But what makes this study and others like it so important is that it identifies something practical and important we can do right now: help parents quit smoking for the sake of their children," Jonathan Bricker of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, told Reuters.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics on May 12.

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