The NHS wants to see a decline in the number of pregnant women who smoke. But the issue is sensitive, and the plan to introduce a test to determine whether a pregnant woman has been smoking rather than take her word for it is proving divisive.
A lot of things are mildly frowned upon in society, like cutting in front of a queue or putting ketchup in your crispy duck rolls. But few sights prompt such scorn from bystanders as an expectant mother lighting up a cigarette and sharing that concoction of carcinogens with her unborn child.
One in ten pregnant women smoke
The statistics are still equally shocking, as more than one in ten women continue to smoke throughout their pregnancy – a number equivalent to roughly 33,000 people in the UK.
Carbon monoxide test
In a bid to address this, the NHS has announced that all mothers-to-be will be given an opportunity to take a smoking test from later on this year.
New mums will be properly tested rather than simply asked
According to its five-year plan, the new tests will be carried out in NHS hospitals across the country, with medical staff checking patients for carbon monoxide levels in their body at various stages of pregnancy.
The initiative is part of a ‘Saving Babies’ Lives’ toolkit that the NHS aims to roll out, in order to halve the number of preventable stillbirths by 2025.
As such, new mums will be properly tested rather than simply asked if they’re continuing to prolong their habit.
Rather than a reprimand, expectant mums can then receive specialist help to quit smoking within 24 hours of first being screened.
Tweets of approval
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has praised the move.
"The number of women smoking in pregnancy is at a record low, but too many women still suffer the tragedy of stillbirth as a result of smoking,” he wrote in a tweet.
“We will do everything in our power to address this, by supporting mothers-to-be to quit.”
Yes! It’s disgusting and selfish.
ITV’s flagship discussion programme Loose Women held a Twitter poll asking viewers if they agreed with the tests – with an overwhelming majority in favour.
Responding to the poll, television personality Nicola McLean (@NicolaMcLean) wrote in a tweet: “Yes! It’s disgusting and selfish.”
While Twitter user Rebecca (@rdemurray) explained why she judges women who smoke during their pregnancy:
“I accept it is an addiction, but they should put the effort in to quit,” she wrote in a tweet.
“If the health of your child isn’t enough motivation what is?”
“A bit Handmaid’s Tale”
Some of the reaction however has been disapproving.
Newspaper columnist Rebecca Reid, while agreeing that smoking during pregnancy is still an unacceptably large and avoidable problem, argued that the proposed tests will have an adverse effect on expectant mothers turning up for appointments.
Writing in a series of tweets, she said: “I am extremely concerned about the NHS's choice to test women rather than trust them when it comes to smoking.”
“I'm very much intending not to smoke through pregnancy, but being told I have to take a test might well drive me back to the arms of nicotine.”
Writing in the Metro, the novelist and journalist elaborated further on her objection.
“We are not believed when we talk about abuse we’ve suffered or harassment we’ve experienced. We’re not even trusted by our own doctors and midwives to tell the truth about our smoking habits,” she said.
“It’s all starting to feel a bit Handmaid’s Tale, really.”
Clear and present danger
It is largely understood now that smoking while pregnant can significantly harm your unborn baby, restricting its vital oxygen supply leading to its underdeveloped heart having to work that much harder.
The NHS has highlighted the dangers smoking poses to an otherwise healthy pregnancy - from premature delivery to increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and even unexpected infant death.
In addition, research from 2011 showed that smoking during pregnancy also increased the risk of birth defects such as missing limbs and club-foot - where a baby’s feet point down and inwards leading to walking difficulties later in life.
The shocking one in ten statistic has been a call to action for the British Parliament recently.
Two years ago the government published its 2017-2022 Tobacco Control Plan for England, a key focus of which was the target of reducing smoking during pregnancy rates from 10.7% to 6% by 2022.