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Can Smoking During Pregnancy Create a Socially Deviant Kid?

New research suggests tobacco exposure in the womb elevates one's risk of later antisocial behavior.

If the Trump administration is serious about reducing crime, it might want to consider dropping its anti-marijuana campaign and focusing instead on a different sort of cigarette: the old-fashioned, tobacco-filled kind.

Research just published in the BMJ provides the best evidence yet that smoking while pregnant increases the odds that the child will engage in antisocial behavior, as both an adolescent and an adult. And that includes committing a violent crime.

"The elevated risk of antisocial behavior is independent of other family attributes more common among women who smoke during pregnancy, such as a history of mental illness and lower socioeconomic status," reports a research team led by Angela Paradis of Brown University. It thus "may be directly attributable to smoking exposure."

And you thought you were only harming your lungs and heart.

Participants were the sons and daughters of women enrolled in the Boston and Providence sites of the Collaborative Perinatal Project between 1959 and 1966. The project focused on the relationship between mothers' health and habits and their children's "mental, neurological, and physical abilities." At a series of visits, expectant mothers noted if they smoked (59 percent did), and, if so, how often.

A one-pack-per-day increase in cigarette consumption was associated with a 30 percent increase in antisocial behavioral problems.

Around their 40th birthday, 1,684 of the participants' offspring were interviewed about their lives, including problematic behaviors during their teenage years. In addition, criminal-records searches were performed by 3,433 participants from the Providence site.

The results: Maternal smoking was "associated with self-reported engagement in juvenile aggressive behavior," the researchers write.

Utilizing the American Psychiatric Association's clinical definition, they found a one-pack-per-day increase in cigarette consumption was associated with a 30 percent increase in antisocial behavioral problems.

And the problematic behaviors didn't stop when they turned 18. A one-pack-per-day increase was associated with greatly increased odds of antisocial behavior as an adult.

Perhaps most strikingly, "a pack-a-day increase in maternal smoking was associated with 2.34-fold increased odds of having a record of non-violent juvenile offenses," the researchers write, "and more than doubled the odds of an adult violent offense."

The researchers don't speculate on how cigarette smoke might adversely affect fetal development. They also did not take into account the mother's alcohol consumption (if any); it's possible those who smoked more also drank more, which presumably would be another risk factor.

Nevertheless, the results provide evidence that the substances a pregnant woman ingests can affect their child many years later, in unexpected ways. Philadelphia's experiment in smoke-free public housing seems like a better and better idea.