ATLANTA — New research shows that smoking bans spare many children with asthma from being hospitalized, a finding that suggests smoke-free laws have even greater health benefits than previously believed.
Other studies have charted the decline in adult heart attack rates after smoking bans were adopted. The new study, conducted in Scotland, looked at asthma-related hospitalizations of kids, which fell 13 percent a year after smoking was barred in 2006 from workplaces and public buildings, including bars and restaurants.
Before the ban, admissions had been rising 5 percent a year in Scotland, which has a notoriously poor health record among European countries.
Earlier U.S. studies, in Arizona and Kentucky, reached similar conclusions. But this was the largest study of its kind — and offered the strongest case that smoking bans can bring immediate health improvements for many people.
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"The effects of smoke-free laws are way bigger than you would expect," said Stanton Glantz, a University of California-San Francisco researcher who specializes in the health effects of smoking. He was not involved in the new study, published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
Cigarette smoke is a trigger for asthma attacks. So researchers reasoned that tracking severe cases was perhaps the best way to measure a smoking ban's immediate effect on children.
"Acute asthma is the tip of the iceberg," more easily tracked than less severe breathing problems, ear infections and other problems seen in children that have been linked to a caregiver's smoking, said Terry Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office on smoking and health.
About 40 percent of American children who go to hospitals because of asthma attacks live with smokers — a high proportion, given that only about 21 percent of U.S. adults smoke, according to CDC statistics.