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Recent research indicates that kids who spend a lot of time in smoke-filled environments may get hooked on nicotine without even taking a puff on a cigarette. The study, published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, found exposure to secondhand smoke had both psychological and physical effects that could make pre-teens more likely to pick up the habit.

Researchers studied more than 300 nonsmoking sixth and seventh graders and found that those with the most smokers in their lives saw more advantages to smoking than their peers. Those who were frequently exposed to secondhand smoke were also more likely to agree to statements about feeling strong, seemingly uncontrollable cravings.

These results suggest that there are both physical and psychological roots to these early cravings, says lead author Simon Racicot, a PhD candidate at Concordia University in Montreal. “[Kids] surrounded by a lot of smokers who talk about their cravings may feel that the same phenomenon happens to them,” he says. “It’s also possible that nicotine intake through secondhand smoke exposure may prime addiction pathways in the brain.”

Even though smoking overall may be on the decline, experts estimate that 60 percent of children in North America have at least some exposure to secondhand smoke. For Racicot, the takeaway from the study is clear: There is no safe exposure to smoking or secondhand smoke. “A parent may smoke outside on the patio, but kids are still getting that social exposure,” he says. “And parents who smoke in a car but don’t smoke once their kids are inside are still exposing their kids to a very high concentration of secondhand smoke. This is just one more argument in favor of reducing kids’ exposure to it.”

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