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Behind the headlines

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‘Damage to foetus from smoking neglible in first five months’

What did the media say?

The media reported that smoking in pregnancy is far less damaging to an unborn baby than commonly thought – as long
as the mother is not from a poor financial background.

What did the research show?

Emma Tominey, a research assistant at the Centre for Economic Performance in London, estimated the harm smoking during pregnancy caused to childbirth outcomes, using a dataset of 3,368 mothers and 6,860 children born between 1973 and 2000. Of these children, 68% were born to mothers who did not smoke, 6% to mothers who had smoked but quit five months after becoming pregnant and 26% who smoked consistently during their pregnancy.

The research suggested smoking tended to reduce birth weight overall by 1.7% (239g) but had no significant effect on the probability of having a child with low birth weight, pre-term gestation or weeks of gestation. There was a negligible effect if the mother quit smoking by month five.

After analysing the statistics by social economic status, the researchers also found the effect of smoking on mothers who were more affluent was much less than for those in deprived areas. They put this down to ‘unobservable traits’ dictated by other lifestyle factors, such as poor diet and high alcohol intake.

What did the researchers say?

The authors said: ‘This suggests that other behaviours of the mother play a large role in child human capital over and above her smoking habits. We suggest policy should target the low educated mothers, offering a more holistic approach to improving child health, as quitting smoking is only half of the battle.’

What does this mean for nursing practice?

Department of Health guidance remains women should not smoke while pregnant and the RCM was unequivocal in rejecting the author’s conclusions. Mervi Jokinen, RCM practice and standards development adviser, said: ‘There is overwhelming evidence and almost universal agreement that smoking has adverse effects on the health of a developing baby, and the woman. Parental smoking contributes to cot deaths, respiratory infections and asthma in children, to name just a few.

‘We encourage everybody, including pregnant women, to adopt a healthy lifestyle, not just for the pregnancy but for the long term.’

Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper No. 828

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