It is now common knowledge that smoking is a major contributor to poor health, particularly with respect to respiratory and cardiovascular health. Now there is also evidence that smoking affects health in another, more subtle way — by contributing to childhood malnutrition.
In a study published in the October 2009 issue of Economic Development and Cultural Change, two researchers from Tufts University, Steven Block of the Fletcher School of International Affairs and Patrick Webb of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, explored the links between smoking, food expenditures, and childhood malnutrition in Indonesia. A survey was administered to households in rural Java, most of which were poor. Based on the surveys, the researchers found that households with at least one smoker spent 10% of their budget on tobacco and that 70% of the money used to purchase tobacco apparently came from funds that would otherwise be used for food. Households with at least one smoker spent 68% of their budget on food, in contrast to nonsmoking households, where the average food expenditure was 75% of the total budget.
The 7-percentage point difference in food spending between households with at least one smoker and households of nonsmokers might not seem substantial, but the researchers found that this decrease in food expenditures was associated with a difference in childhood nutritional status as measured by height-for-age. The reduced nutritional status of the children may be related to the types of foods being purchased; in households with at least one smoker, less money was spent on fruit, vegetables, and meat, which are important sources of nutrients in the heavily rice-based diet of most rural Indonesians.
It is already known that smoking puts people at risk for many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and childhood asthma and that tobacco use causes more preventable deaths than anything else. This new report shows that we have another compelling reason to advocate for reducing tobacco use: reducing child malnutrition.