Mums-to-be still light up
By Jen Kelly

MOST women who smoke don't quit the lethal habit while pregnant, risking permanent damage or death to their unborn children.

In the wake of alarming new figures, Australian health experts warn pregnant and breastfeeding smokers are seriously endangering the lives of their babies.

Large warnings on cigarette packets saying "Smoking when pregnant harms your baby" have failed to convince most expectant mums to quit.

Researchers from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found while 26 per cent of all women smoked, the figure barely dropped among women who were pregnant or breastfeeding.

"It shows 23 per cent of women smoked while they were pregnant," researcher Mark Cooper-Stanbury said.

"There wasn't much change in smoking behaviour for those women who were smoking while they were pregnant or breast-feeding."

Experts say smoking during pregnancy can cause miscarriages, low birth weight, premature birth, impaired lung function and increase the risk of allergies.

Action on Smoking and Health Australia chief executive Anne Jones said there was little doubt smoking could kill unborn or newly born babies.

"The biggest concern is death from sudden infant death syndrome, where the risk is increased about three-fold for women who smoke," she said.

"It's one of the most harmful things that mothers can be engaged in, in terms of their own health and the health of their unborn child or newly born child."

But Ms Jones said she felt sympathy towards those women who continued to smoke while pregnant and breastfeeding.

"There are a lot of women who would like to not smoke, who probably know they're doing something that's very risky for themselves and their child, but where can they turn for help?" she said.

"Because it's so addictive, when they try to give up they can't. There's a lot of guilt there."

Ms Jones said health professionals needed to help young girls quit, long before they contemplated motherhood, and governments needed to spend more money on mass media anti-smoking campaigns aimed at young women.

The figures are revealed in the report "Statistics on drug use in Australia 2002", released today.

Nicotine and other toxins in cigarettes readily cross the placenta to the fetus.

Some studies show women who smoke during pregnancy have a 25 to 50 per cent higher rate of fetal and infant deaths compared with non-smokers.

Nicotine is also found in breast milk of women who smoke.

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