Parents feel the food pinch themselves, Weitzman said. "They cut back on feeding themselves before they cut back on the children's food," he said. "And parents tend to feed the youngest children better."
The findings were published in the November issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.
The problem is likely to grow worse, given the current condition of the economy, Weitzman said. "If the economic downturn persists, both food insecurity and adults smoking are likely to increase," he said, because smoking "is one of the hardest addictions to give up."
One sure way to reduce smoking -- raising the taxes on cigarettes -- has its own dangers, because it's likely to cut even more into the family food budget, Weitzman said.
Two other strategies should be considered, said John F. Banzhaf III, executive director and chief counsel of Action on Smoking and Health, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.
"The first would be to persuade or even require physicians to report, as the law already requires in suspected child abuse, instances where parents smoke at home in the presence of children, especially children who already have asthma, sinusitis or other conditions which make them especially sensitive and susceptible," Banzhaf said.
A more aggressive tactic would be to take steps against doctors who do not warn people about the dangers of smoking or provide effective smoking cessation treatment, he said. "One journal article has even gone so far as to suggest that the best, and perhaps the only, way to motivate most of them would be to begin bringing malpractice actions where medical problems results," he added.
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