SOUTHAMPTON, United Kingdom — Teenage boys who smoke may put their future children at risk for obesity, asthma, and poor lung function, according to a new study. Along with traditional smoking products, researchers from the University of Southampton are calling for stricter regulations on vaping, citing the risks of passing on harmful epigenetic traits to offspring.
The study found that men who smoked before age 15 could cause alterations in up to 14 genes they share with their children, affecting asthma, obesity, and lung function. Researchers suspect that nicotine is responsible for these changes, rendering vaping as hazardous as cigarettes for future generations.
“Some animal studies suggest that nicotine may be the substance in cigarette smoke that is driving epigenetic changes in offspring,” says study co-author Professor John Holloway from the University of Southampton and the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, in a media release. “We can’t definitely be sure vaping will have similar effects across generations, but we shouldn’t wait a couple of generations to prove what impact teenage vaping might have. We need to act now.”
The University of Southampton’s LifeLab program engages young people to demonstrate how lifestyle choices can affect both their health and the health of their future children.
“Parents, teachers and young people themselves are concerned about the impact of vaping. We’re working with our Youth Panel to understand the role vaping plays in their lives and to co-create resources that will help inform young people about the risks,” says Dr. Kath Woods-Townsend, the LifeLab Program Manager.
The study is the first to identify the biological mechanism explaining the impact of fathers’ early smoking habits on their children. Along with colleagues from the University of Bergen in Norway, the researchers studied 875 people, ages seven to 50, and the smoking behavior of their fathers. They found notable epigenetic changes linked to 14 genes in children whose fathers had smoked before the age of 15.
“Changes in epigenetic markers were much more pronounced in children whose fathers started smoking during puberty than those whose fathers had started smoking at any time before conception. Early puberty may represent a critical window of physiological changes in boys,” emphasizes Dr. Negusse Kitaba, a Research Fellow at the University of Southampton.
Comparisons were also made between the smoking profiles of fathers and those of individuals who smoked themselves, or whose mothers smoked prior to conception.
“Our studies in the large international RHINESSA, RHINE and ECRHS studies have shown that the health of future generations depends on the actions and decisions made by young people today – long before they are parents – in particular for boys in early puberty and mothers/grandmothers both pre-pregnancy and during pregnancy,” says Professor Cecilie Svanes from the University of Bergen and Research Director of the RHINESSA study. “It is really exciting that we have now been able to identify a mechanism that explains our observations in the cohorts.”
The study is published in the journal Clinical Epigenetics.
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South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.