Millions of U.S. Kids Live With a Substance-Abusing Adult

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Tens of millions of American children are growing up in the shadow of substance abuse and tobacco use, a new study shows.

For many, the problem starts at home, with a parent who drinks too much or uses illegal drugs. Tobacco — while legal for adults — is another health hazard that kids often face because of their parents.

“In the United States today, half of all children (35.6 million) live in a household where a parent or other adult uses tobacco, drinks heavily, or uses illicit drugs,” write researchers.

Detailed Data on Substance Abuse

How many children are affected? Here’s how the numbers break down:

—37 percent of children (27 million) live with a parent or other adult who smokes or chews tobacco.

—Nearly 24 percent (17 million) live with a parent or other adult who drinks heavily or binge drinks.

—About 13 percent (9.2 million) live with a parent or other adult who uses illegal drugs.

The report comes from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Data came from CASA, government surveys, dozens of researchers, and nonprofit organizations including Alcoholics Anonymous and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Risky Habits

Tobacco, illegal drugs, and heavy drinking aren’t good for grown-ups. But their impact doesn’t stop there. Those substances can endanger kids before birth and set them up for future trouble.

For instance, “prenatal exposure to tobacco, alcohol, and drugs is associated with miscarriage, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), low birth weight and physical deformities, cognitive impairment, conduct disorders, depression, and mental retardation,” says Joseph Califano, CASA chairman and president, in the report.

“Parents with substance abuse problems are approximately three times likelier to report abuse towards their children and four times likelier to report neglect than parents without substance abuse problems,” continues Califano, who was the secretary of the U.S Health, Education, and Welfare Department under former President Jimmy Carter.

Kids who grow up with parents who smoke, use illegal drugs, or drink too much are more likely to do the same when they mature, says Califano.

Of course, it’s possible to beat those odds. Kids aren’t doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes. But it’s not easy, the study shows.

Setting an Example

Parents aren’t the only influence on kids; media and peer pressure can also have an effect.

But families are a big factor — for better or worse. Curbing tobacco use and addictions can give parents and children alike a healthier future, researchers say.

“Parents who abstain from cigarettes and illegal drugs, drink responsibly, have high expectations for their children, monitor their whereabouts, know their friends, and provide loving support and open communication are less likely to have children who smoke, drink, and use drugs,” says Califano.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “Family Matters: Substance Abuse and The American Family.” Reuters.