Tobacco Use Worsens Malnutrition in Indonesia

After years of media attention, many understand and accept that smoking is bad for your health and that second-hand smoke is bad for people who live with smokers. But new research shows that in many developing countries, smoking can affect the nutrition of children who live with a smoker.

That’s because people exposed to someone else’s smoke are at increased risk for a range of health problems.

But some economists find there’s an fiscal risk as well. In many poor countries, in order to light up, smokers spend a significant amount of money to pay for cigarettes.

Economist Steven Block learned this by examining data from Indonesia about the household expenses of smokers. He says it turns out that tobacco is a surprisingly large expenditure in those households where there is a smoker.

“The percentage of men in Indonesia that smokes is over 60 percent,” Block says. “A substantial number of households has one smoker, and it turns out that even among very poor households in rural central Java… when there is a smoker in the household, they spent approximately 10 percent of their household budget on tobacco products.”

Block used data collected by the not-for-profit Helen Keller International a group that gathers information about household consumption patterns around the world every few months.

Block says the data show the relatively high percentage of money spent on tobacco held true in the poorest families where food budgets take up between 60 to 70 percent of total income.

“For them to start allocating 10 percent of their household budget to cigarettes implies some pretty severe trades off in terms of other things like food, perhaps housing, healthcare, education,” Block says.

What’s more, Block says, the data was able to show that having a smoker in the family resulted in the children having physical changes.

“Because these tobacco expenditures are displacing food expenditures we can document that the children are slightly shorter on average in those households,” Block says.

Repeated studies have shown that height for age is a good indicator of the long-term nutritional status of children.

Block says that’s probably because when there’s less money to be spent on groceries, there’s less money for highly nutritious food that can help children grow. However, some of the effects of tobacco expense on children were mitigated when their mothers had more education and made wiser food purchases.

Block’s research is published in the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change.
By Rose Hoban
Durham, North Carolina
15 September 2009

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