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

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