A Staggering Number Of Women Still Smoke While Pregnant

by Wendy Wisner
Vladimir Godnik / Getty Images

It seems like a no-brainer that smoking during pregnancy is a danger to be avoided at all costs. The idea has been drilled into us since we were kids, and it’s hard to even imagine a mother lighting up a cigarette while pregnant. But it’s actually a whole lot more common than people think, as outlined in a new report released in February by the CDC.

According to the report, as many as 1 in 14 mothers smoke during pregnancy—and that number might actually be higher, because people tend to underreport harmful behaviors like this. In all, about 7.2% of mothers admit to smoking while pregnant, although the behavior tends to be concentrated in certain states and within some specific demographics.

Yep, I’m as horrified and surprised as you are by these alarming stats.

The prevalence of smoking while pregnancy is highest in rural areas. West Virginia topped the list with a whopping 25.1% of mom smoking while pregnant, but Kentucky, Montana, Vermont, and Missouri also trended on the higher side. Rates were much lower in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and D.C., all of which had incidences lower than 5%.

Age and education level also came into play here, with younger, less educated mothers having the highest rates. Prevalence was highest for expectant moms aged 20–24 (10.7%). Coming in second were moms aged 15–19 (8.5%), and then moms aged 25–29 (8.2%). Rates were highest among moms with a high school education (12.2%), with moms having less than a high school education following close behind (11.7%).

Race was also a factor, with Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native women having the highest rates (16.7%), and non-Hispanic Asian women having the lowest (0.6%).

And yes, this is all a very big deal indeed. Smoking during pregnancy is known to cause a myriad of concerning health problems in newborns, including low birthweight, preterm birth, SIDS, stillbirth, and multiple kinds of birth defects. Not something to be taken lightly at all.

And it’s not like “just a little smoking” is okay. Nope: any amount of smoking can cause dire consequences for a newborn baby.

“Despite the well-understood risk to mother and child, still, about one of every 14 women in the United States smoked during pregnancy,” said Patrick Drake, senior author of the CDC report. “These levels do vary widely by state, maternal age, race and Hispanic origin, and education, but any amount of smoking during pregnancy is too much.”

Of course, it does no good to blindly point fingers at the women who are doing this. We need to realize that the responsibility lies not just with the mothers in question, but with those who are tasked with educating and supporting them. It is no mistake that younger, less educated women from poorer, more rural states are more likely to end up smoking while pregnant—and it is everyone’s responsibility to rectify this.

“West Virginia and Kentucky have always had one of the highest prevalence of smoking, and it’s consistent,” Dr. Haywood Brown, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University School of Medicine, tells CNN. “We still need very aggressive education campaigns in high-smoking-prevalence states, particularly in where there’s rural access-to-care issues.”

Brown tells CNN that the highest rates of smoking correlate with the highest rates of infant mortality as well, which is a sad, but sobering fact. Brown pointed to a CDC report showing that between the years of 2013 and 2015, West Virginia and Kentucky (states where smoking during pregnancy are highest) had among the highest infant mortality rates in the country.

“The linkages between smoking and infant mortality and prematurity are real,” Brown told CNN.

But Brown also believes that education is a prime way that we can fix this problem—and we’ve got get to it ASAFP.

“We still have a serious issue with infant mortality — prematurity and infant mortality are clearly linked to cigarette smoking, as is low birth weight — and when you begin to explain these things to patients, it really does appear to make a difference to them,” said Brown.

Clearly, though, education isn’t the only factor here. Mothers need access to good health insurance—and they need to be given this access prenatally as well as during pregnancy. If you are a poor mother in a rural area, it can be very difficult to get this coverage inexpensively and easily. There also need to be more accessible, top-notch programs in place to help mothers break the smoking habit before they even become pregnant, especially for habitual users.

As shocking and upsetting a report like this one is to most of us, with any luck, it will shed some much-needed light on the issue. And hopefully, it will help get some good education and support programs in place for expectant mothers who need it most. After all, this is our next generation of children we are talking about here, and they deserve to be healthy and well.