Why are one in 10 women still smoking during pregnancy?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Smoking during pregnancy is one of the top causes of health problems for babies, potentially leading to miscarriage, premature birth, SIDS, and problems with lung development and lung function. A shocking new report has revealed that, although the rate continues to drop in Australia, one in 10 women are still smoking during pregnancy.

Cigarette smoke contains over 4000 different chemicals, including cyanide, lead, and at least 60 carcinogens. Smoking while pregnant introduces all those chemicals into a mother's blood stream, which is also her baby's only source of oxygen and nutrients.

The two compounds in cigarettes that are particularly harmful to babies are nicotine and carbon monoxide.

Figures released recently by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show around 10 per cent of women smoked at some point during their pregnancy, but those rates were higher in regional areas (17.4 per cent) than they were in metropolitan areas (7.9 per cent).

AIHW spokesperson Anna O'Mahony said the results were generally showing positive movement, but they also show some regions are not getting the message.

"While nationally there was been a consistent decrease in the proportion of mothers smoking during pregnancy – falling from about one in seven mothers in 2009 to one in 10 in 2015 – rates in some areas are nearly 18 times as high as others," Ms O'Mahony said.

The areas with the highest incidences of smoking during pregnancy were Western New South Wales (22.9 per cent), the Northern Territory (21.8 per cent), and Gippsland in Victoria (21.6 per cent). Almost half of all women who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander said they had smoked at some stage during their pregnancy.

These populations also have a significantly higher than average infant mortality rate.

Brisbane mum of one Stella* says she knew the risks of smoking throughout her pregnancy but did it anyway.


"I tried to stop, and did for a few weeks early on," she said. "But I've been smoking since I was a teenager and the pull was just too much. It was just the occasional cigarette at first, but then it was a slippery slope and I ended up smoking just as much during my pregnancy as I did before.

"I knew it wasn't great and that it came with risks, but I'm generally pretty fit and healthy so I figured I'd be all right – that those statistics wouldn't apply to me."

Stella's son was born three weeks early by emergency caesarean after he stopped growing, and his heart rate dipped dangerously low. Samuel* was born underweight and with his lungs not yet fully functioning. He spent two weeks in hospital before being able to go home with his parents.

"He was okay, thank goodness, but we had some scary moments," said Stella. "I don't know if the smoking was the direct cause of Samuel's problems, but knowing I could have caused him to struggle like makes me feel sick. I'm scared to have another baby because I honestly don't know if I can give up smoking, and I can't do that to another child."

Ms O'Mahony said that although the data from the report is alarming, there is still a lot to learn about the health of mothers and their babies, and many other factors that contribute to health and mortality rates.

"This includes improving data on mothers' experiences with domestic violence, mental health issues, and alcohol consumption during pregnancy," she said.

If you need help to stop smoking, talk to your GP about the best support for you.

*Names have been changed.