Category Archives: Smoking in pregnancy

Blame the government if you can’t stop smoking!

In ASH Daily News of 20 October 2017 there appears a commentary on a report lamenting recent cuts to local authority stop smoking budgets. Ms Hazel Cheeseman, Director of Policy at ASH, has this to say:

Without high quality local services in place vulnerable groups of smokers, such as pregnant women or smokers needing surgery, risk being left to go it alone. The responsibility for this must be shared between local and national government.

Every word in this statement attests to a lamentable lack of understanding of the smoking problem and how to deal with it.

All smokers are vulnerable – to the harmful, often lethal, effects of smoking. I suppose Ms Cheeseman is especially concerned about these particular groups because the harmful effects of their smoking are likely to make themselves felt within weeks or months rather than after the years or decades it may take for ordinary smokers to become ill or die as a result of their cigarette addiction.

But with the current absurd situation where cigarettes are on open sale everywhere, it’s not enough, apparently, just to try and discourage people from buying them. There’s much wringing of hands by the likes of Ms Cheeseman that these particular vulnerable smokers are at risk of being ‘left to go it (quit) alone.’

So the responsibility of these smokers to quit lies not just with the individuals concerned but with local and national government.

And how is it that local and national government finds itself in the embarrassing position of being accused of not living up to its responsibilities? It’s because ‘an increasing number of authorities [are] making cuts to stop smoking budgets.’

If only there were enough money to go around so that local and national government could fund stop smoking budgets to its heart’s content! Could we anticipate, in such a case, that stop smoking services, staffed by highly skilled counsellors offering the latest in stop smoking aids including e-cigarettes, would be available around the clock on every high street in the cities and towns of Britain? And if this fantasy were to become true, would we see droves of smoking pregnant women and smokers needing surgery queuing up to be cured of their addiction or at any rate being offered a hoped-for less harmful way of continuing their addiction?

Pregnant or in need or an operation and think you can’t stop smoking? Don’t worry – it’s not your fault! It’s the fault of local and national government for not funding stop smoking services enough!

The fact is, whatever the availability of stop smoking services and no matter what stop smoking ‘aids’ may be offered, the individual smoker has to make the decision – and stick to it – not to smoke ever again, or at least not to smoke until the baby is born or the operation is over. And they have to do this on their own.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

Stigmatization and the Corner Shop

When I used to work in obstetrics (care of pregnant women) certain routine tests were carried out at each attendance, such as checking the urine and measuring the blood pressure. The reason was that these tests can give early warning of serious problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and then the appropriate action could be taken.

Of course, medical practice doesn’t stand still; sometimes new tests are added and old ones discarded. The latest development in obstetrics, in Britain at any rate, is that at the first and possibly subsequent ante-natal appointments, as part of the routine, a woman should now expect to be breathalysed (unless she opts out) for carbon monoxide (CO). This is to detect pregnant women who smoke and may try to conceal the fact.

What if the test is positive? Assuming the machine is accurate it could be due to a faulty boiler at home or living near a main road, but the most common reason is, of course, smoking. So what is the midwife supposed to say? ‘You naughty girl, you’re a smoker aren’t you? I know you are, the machine proves it! Well, don’t worry, we’ll refer you to your friendly local stop smoking service and they’ll help you to be cured of your nicotine addiction by using a nice nicotine patch or delicious nicotine chewing gum, even though they won’t work very well, instead of smoking those horrid ciggies!’

In the past, if I came across a pregnant woman in my clinic who smoked, I would tell her plainly though politely, that she had to stop smoking today because otherwise she would harm her baby. Paternalistic? Yes. Authoritarian? Yes. Did it work? I hope so.

These days it seems paternalism and authoritarianism are politically incorrect, and instead so-called nicotine replacement therapy is offered. Is it safe in pregnancy? At present there is no evidence that it isn’t safe, which is not the same thing as saying there is evidence that it is safe. And if pregnant women are not wild about using nicotine patches or gum, what about e-cigarettes? Again, although there is widespread belief that these are safer than smoking, there is so far no evidence that this is so.

Now, a professor of health policy at the University of Stirling in Scotland, Linda Bauld, who is also the deputy director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, is quite enthusiastic for pregnant women, if they can’t or won’t stop smoking, to switch to nicotine replacement therapy or to e-cigarettes. Nonetheless, in a recent video talk she rightly sounded a note of caution: ‘What do we know about vaping in pregnancy? Very little, at the moment.’

With her impeccable credentials – although it’s unlikely she has personally treated a single smoker – you would think she would know a thing or two about smoking, but a tiny doubt arose in my mind when, in the same video, she said this:

Pregnant women universally, despite the fact that they find smoking beneficial and enjoyable perhaps before they’re pregnant and still smoke to cope, experience a significant degree of stigma [because others disapprove of their smoking]…we think women [in pregnancy] should be supported to vape if they find it difficult to stop smoking…

It’s regrettable that the bearers of the next generation should be stigmatised in any way, but would Professor Bauld be so good as to tell us why she thinks pregnant women find smoking beneficial, what exactly is enjoyable about smoking for them, and how and with what does smoking enable them to cope? Further, Professor Bauld is evidently unaware that all smokers find it difficult to stop – that’s why they smoke.

If the reason smokers, pregnant or otherwise, smoke is so profoundly misunderstood, what hope is there for getting them to stop? And why should she refer approvingly, as she does, to the new regimen of routine CO breath tests in ante-natal clinics? Does she think that shaming pregnant women who smoke by presenting them with their CO read-outs is the way to reduce their universal stigmatization?

Unless the real reason for smoking is recognised and confronted, the present ineffective and little-liked proffering of medicinal nicotine products and, as Professor Bauld hopes in the near future, prescribing e-cigarettes, will allow the present scandalous situation to continue where any pregnant woman is free to smoke as much as she likes or feels compelled to do.

In her enthusiasm for vaping, Professor Bauld even jumps into the controversy over e-cigarette users having their life insurance premiums loaded in the same way as smokers.

In response to a piece in the online Sunday Post (6 August 2017) that complained that ‘Insurance companies are still hitting e-cigarette users with a “smoker’s surcharge” despite…reports which claim vaping is far less dangerous than using tobacco’, she said ‘Insurers classing people who use e-cigarettes as being the same as smokers is “fundamentally wrong” [and] it is just not fair.’ She added:

As well as being financially punitive to people who vape, it can also send negative messages to those who want to stop smoking…If vapers are regarded as being the same as tobacco smokers it could lead to an attitude of ‘why bother’ and before you know it they are back at the corner shop buying cigarettes.

Here we have it again: the lack of understanding of why smokers smoke and vapers vape. She apparently thinks vapers only vape because they may find some financial advantage in doing so, but if they’re going to be treated in such an unfair way by their insurance companies there’s no point! Why should I stop smoking – that beneficial and enjoyable activity that helps me to cope! – for the sake of my health if I’m going to be hit with extra charges for doing so? I’ll show them! Back to the corner shop!

Even if e-cigarettes are eventually proven to be safer than smoking, in the meantime I can’t say I blame the insurers for loading the premiums of people who suck poison into their lungs all day.

But there’s a win-win situation for would-be non-smokers and all who have switched to e-cigarettes as a less harmful way, they hope, of continuing their nicotine addiction: stop smoking and all use of nicotine products.

The gimmick-free way to do this is easier than you might think.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

How to solve the problem of smoking in pregnancy

In October 2015 in the UK a report was published called Smoking Cessation in Pregnancy: A Review of the Challenge. This endeavour was endorsed by no less than twenty-one worthy organisations such as Action on Smoking and Health, Bliss (‘for babies born too soon, too small, too sick’), the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association, and the like.

The report considers how to deal with the serious problem of pregnant women who smoke – an activity, as is well known, that is harmful to the unborn babies as well as to the mothers.

The unnamed authors start by congratulating themselves on their achievements against the Challenge Group’s 2013 recommendations, using a traffic-light rating system. There’s rather a lot of red and amber so there’s more work to be done, and they acknowledge the magnitude of the task: ‘In the region of 70,000 infants every year are born to mothers who smoke [in England].’

Rather than critiquing the whole paper, for this post I shall consider just the title: why is it merely Smoking Cessation in Pregnancy and not Smoking Prohibition in Pregnancy?

In the UK anyone aged over eighteen, pregnant or not, may go into any shop or supermarket where cigarettes are sold and buy – no questions asked – a packet containing twenty of these dangerous, addictive products.

Now let us suppose – just suppose – that smoking was banned for pregnant women. They would not be allowed to buy cigarettes in the shops or through the internet and other people would be forbidden on pain of instant excommunication knowingly to give cigarettes to a pregnant woman, and let us further suppose that this scheme worked perfectly so that there was no way a woman, once her pregnancy was confirmed, could legally smoke cigarettes or use any nicotine product. What would happen? Would there be an outcry? Would there be  marches in the streets with demonstrators carrying placards saying ‘We demand the right of pregnant women to smoke!’?

I suspect many women would be quite relieved that the dilemma of smoking in pregnancy had been taken away from them. They may well say to themselves, ‘Of course I know it’s bad for me and the baby, but now that I’m not allowed to smoke, well, I’ll just have to accept it.’

This is a fantasy, but at present, pregnant women as long as they are over eighteen, in spite of being strongly discouraged from doing so, may, if they wish, quite legally buy and smoke as many cigarettes as they choose.

Smoking in front of children is rightly discouraged and there are penalties for smoking in cars when children are present. But what about the developing baby in the womb of a smoker?

This absurd and unacceptable situation exists because in a democracy like Britain adults have the right to damage their health by smoking cigarettes. But should they have the right to damage other people’s health – including that of unborn babies – by smoking?

Before my critics start accusing me of being an agent of the Nanny State, let me make something quite clear. There is a big difference between smoking in pregnancy and other harmful behaviours and of course I am not proposing that laws  be enacted to try to save unborn babies from all possible dangers.

Heavy drinking in pregnancy is harmful to the baby: it can produce a serious condition called the foetal-alcohol syndrome. But the occasional glass of wine or beer is probably all right. Nonetheless, where to draw the line is unclear, and I would not advise drinking any alcohol in pregnancy.

But whereas the occasional alcoholic drink in pregnancy is probably safe, pregnant women who smoke do not do it occasionally; they do it every day, repeatedly. There is no question whatsoever that smoking can directly damage the developing baby and that is why is it strongly discouraged and help is offered to pregnant smokers to quit.

The reason that some women smoke when pregnant is the same reason they smoke when they’re not pregnant: nicotine addiction. They may claim they do it for pleasure or relaxation or to relieve stress but such claims are illusory – as any smoker can easily demonstrate to himself or herself.

The question, then, comes down to this: because of the high risk of serious harm to the unborn child, should smoking in pregnancy be banned?

Text © Gabriel Symonds