The Harvard University School of Public Health recently released an article discussing the relationship between smoking during pregnancy and the child’s risk of developing a long-term criminal record. The study concludes that the children of mothers who smoked have a 30% increased chance of being arrested as adults, with no difference between genders. The offspring also have an increased chance of being repeat-offenders. Possible explanations include that exposure to cigarette smoke while in the womb may harm developing brain areas related to behavior, attention, and impulse control. While fascinating, the results of this study are not exactly surprising – it is already proven that smoking while pregnant causes plenty of adverse outcomes, such as lower birth weights and impaired respiratory function. However, it did lead me to wonder why, if we already know smoking during pregnancy is bad for the baby, do we need to invest further research and money into finding even more detrimental outcomes?
After reading more on the subject, I have concluded that the relationship between mothers who smoke and the development of criminal behavior in their children is even more complex than the Harvard study suggests. Apart from the direct influence cigarette smoke may have on brain development in utero, a multitude of other factors are either confounding this association in the general population, or exacerbating it. For instance, mothers who smoke while pregnant are more likely to make other bad health decisions, regardless of whether they are aware of the associated risks. They may drink while pregnant or be apathetic about their diets, both of which are known to impact brain development in unborn babies. Women who smoke are also more likely to employ inconsistent, harsh discipline and unresponsive parenting methods.
Such circumstances may lead to antisocial behavior in the child, which is associated with criminal activity. Furthermore, in adults, smoking is higher among criminals – the ratio of smokers to non-smokers in US prisons is nine to one. Related to this trend, smoking is more prevalent among women who have a mental illness and since mental illness is genetic, it could be passed to the child. Ultimately, the child’s likelihood of becoming a smoker, and subsequently a criminal, is increased. Or perhaps the child picks up smoking through learned behavior if the mother continues to smoke after the pregnancy. Another possibility is that smoking contributes to a mother’s decision to engage in criminal behavior and the child learns her criminal behavior pattern – children of offenders are five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. Or, similar to children of divorced parents, children of prison inmates often show signs of depression and aggression caused by the lack of a stable home life, again leading to antisocial behavior. Thinking about all of these associations is mind-blowing, is it not?
So, should we bother researching further into the link between women who smoke during and/or after pregnancy and the development of criminal behavior? My answer is an emphatic ‘yes,’ for several reasons. First, as previously illustrated, there are all of these associations between smoking and parenting, mental health, and behavior that can be linked to committing crime. We are only beginning to discover the extent of influence these factors have on each other. The Harvard study states that the association between cigarette smoking and criminal activity in the offspring is modest and only seen in women who smoked more than twenty cigarettes a day. Thus, more studies need to replicate, clarify, and add to these findings because once antisocial behavior has developed in a person, it tends to be persistent and difficult to treat. Other risk factors of criminal activity, such as low socioeconomic status, an unstable family structure, and mental illness in parents are typically chronic and can also be difficult to change.
Smoking, on the other hand, is a risk factor that can, and should, be eliminated in order to decrease the burden of crime on society. A determination of causality would lead to even more public health action urging mothers not to smoke, which would improve the health of their children in several respects.
Crawford, Geniece. Fall, 2010. Boston University SO209: Crime and Delinquency lecture notes.
Harvard Gazette. “Heavy Smoking in Pregnancy Linked to Crime in Offspring.” Nov 15, 2010.
“Incarcerated Women: Their Histories and Their Children.” 2005. <http://www.cpeip.fsu.edu/resourceFiles/resourceFile_107.pdf>