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An association was sought between passive smoking and inpatient admissions for respiratory illness in 1058 children born between 1 June and 31 December 1981 and living in the neighborhoods of Nan-Jing Western Road and Yan-An Western Road in Jing-An District, Shanghai. The admission rate for first episodes of respiratory illness was positively correlated with the total daily cigarette consumption of family members during the children's first 18 months of life. The relative risk of developing a first episode of respiratory illness was 1.80 for children living in families including people who smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day compared with those living in non-smoking families. Multiple logistic regression analysis showed that the effect of passive smoking on inpatient admission for respiratory illness was independent of the child's birth weight, type of feeding, father's education, size of the home, and chronic respiratory disease among adults in the family. The adjusted odds ratios compared with the non-smoking group were 1.17 in families smoking 1.9 cigarettes daily and 1.89 in families smoking 10 or more cigarettes daily. These data suggest that exposure to household cigarette smoke of children in early life increases the risk of severe respiratory illness.