The University of Chicago Magazine

October 1997


Secondhand Smoke

Despite warnings that cigarette smoking during pregnancy can cause low birth weight, prematurity, and infant death, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of pregnant women smoke anyway. Now a study led by U of C psychiatrists Lauren Wakschlag, AM'83, PhD'92, and Benjamin B. Lahey gives those women one more reason to quit: Their sons are significantly more likely to exhibit chronic and serious antisocial behavior problems.

Researchers from the University of Chicago Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh analyzed the records of 177 boys, ages 7­12, who had been referred to outpatient clinics for behavior problems. The study, published in the July Archives of General Psychiatry, showed that among those mothers who reported smoking more than half a pack of cigarettes a day during pregnancy, 80 percent of their sons had conduct disorder. Seventy percent of the boys whose mothers smoked half a pack a day had the disorder, while only 50 percent of the boys whose mothers did not smoke were diagnosed with it.

The study controlled for risk factors other than maternal smoking, and the results indicated that smoking during pregnancy is a "robust" risk factor for conduct disorder in boys. The report suggests that nicotine from the cigarettes may disrupt fetal brain development, a finding supported by earlier animal research.

"The implications of the study are tre-mendous," says coauthor Lahey. "In one-third of cases, conduct disorder becomes adult antisocial personality disorder. These adults account for ten percent of all criminals but commit 50 percent of all crimes."

Of all children ages 4­17 in the United States, about five percent suffer from conduct disorder. Symptoms include frequent and persistent lying, fire-setting, vandalism, physical cruelty, forcible sexual activity, or severe stealing that begins at an early age. Treatment rarely works, the research-ers note, so the solution seems to lie in prevention.

"The cost of intensive support to help pregnant women stop smoking," says lead author Wakschlag, "is minuscule compared with the costs of treating conduct disorder."

Also in Investigations:

Town and Country

Oriental Institute researchers Tony Wilkinson and McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, uncover ancient Arabia.

Citations-Jewish/German Culture - Calculation Reevaluation - Comfortably Numb and the Birds and the Bees

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