08/09/2010 12:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Study Finds 12 Percent of U.S. Parents Force Their Children to Smoke

This blog entry is authored by David Wee, one of Orin Levine's graduate students at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This post is the second of a three week series entitled "Tomorrow's Vaccine Policy Leaders."


A new study has found that 12 percent of American parents force their children to smoke.

Now that I have your attention, allow me to settle your anxiety for a moment by telling you that, fortunately, no such study exists.

But don't relax just yet.

While there is no evidence that parents are forcibly putting their children at risk for small cell lung cancer, millions of American parents are putting their children at risk for at least one of many potentially fatal and entirely preventable diseases.

In an article published on Monday in the April issue of Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Michigan have found that 12 percent of parents in the US have refused at least one recommended vaccine for their children, taking part in the allowance for philosophical exemptions from childhood vaccine mandates. While critics of such policies believe that mandates should be tightened in order to improve compliance and public health, advocates contend that such measures would place unnecessary restrictions on the personal freedoms that make our country great. However, a properly functioning democracy relies on well-informed citizens, so let's get the facts straight.

It's obvious that leaving one's children unvaccinated will put them at a higher risk of contracting a preventable disease, but that possibility is commonly underestimated by parents in developed countries like ours where vaccine coverage is high and once widespread vaccine preventable diseases, like measles, rubella, and diphtheria, are rare.

So just how high is the risk? For one such disease, pertussis, or whooping cough, the odds of getting infected are 23 times higher in unvaccinated children compared to vaccinated children.

To give you a sense of the magnitude of that association, it's about the same as comparing the odds of lung cancer in a person who has smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years to a person who has never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life.

Still don't buy the analogy? Perhaps you're with the 25 percent of parents in the University of Michigan study who believe that vaccines can cause autism. If so, then you're buying into the influence of an anti-vaccine campaign that has dismissed dozens of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate the safety of vaccines while basing many of its arguments on one scientific study that has since been retracted by the medical journal in which it was published and by 10 of its 13 original co-authors. A major contributor to the retraction was the discovery that the lead author had been paid nearly $800,000 from a law firm involved in class-action lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.

The discovery of the link between tobacco and lung cancer has been one of the greatest achievements in public health over the last century, an achievement that is significantly overshadowed by the millions if not billions of lives and healthy life years that have been saved by the advent of vaccines. You wouldn't give your children cigarettes; please don't let them live without vaccines.

About the Author
David Wee received his Masters in Global Disease Epidemiology and Control Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and has performed research on dengue fever vaccines. He is currently a student at the University of Michigan Medical School.