Two in five pregnant teens still smoke in Canberra, alarming health professionals
By Clare Sibthorpe
Health professionals are concerned about the alarmingly high rate of young pregnant smokers in Canberra, as the sector ramps up efforts to reduce it.
Forty-two per cent of expecting teenagers in Canberra reported tobacco use at their first antenatal visit in the six years to 2014, the ACT 2016 Chief Health Officer’s report showed.
This cohort was more than four times likely to smoke than the territory’s general population, of which 10 per cent reported smoking.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were six times more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to smoke while pregnant.
Now medical providers are teaming up with women’s groups in a bid to encourage expecting young mothers to quit.
Mums urged to ‘quit for two’
Acknowledging the need to tackle this issue, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s ACT branch has partnered with ACT Health for a two-year project called ‘Quit for 2’ which trains pharmacists to support pregnant customers to quit smoking.
The Pharmacy Guild’s ACT director Margaret Beerworth said the initiative, which recently hit its halfway mark, had seen a rise in successful quit attempts.
But she said there remained significant stigma attached to smoking while pregnant, meaning many women still hid their addiction.
“They [women] will often go into a pharmacy with other symptoms of pregnancy — it might be reflux — and during the conversation the pharmacist will ask ‘do you smoke?’ and that has been very successful approach,” Ms Beerworth said.
“But it is sometimes very difficult to find out if a woman is smoking as some women who are pregnant will very rarely go into the pharmacy.
“It is still a very sensitive area to discuss.”
To connect with women who may have little interaction with their local pharmacy, the Pharmacy Guild recently teamed up with local women’s health providers, including YWCA, Capital Health Network and Women’s Centre for Health Matters.
However, Ms Beerworth was concerned that 48 per cent of Indigenous mothers under the age of 20 continued to smoke, saying further support was needed.
“There are a greater number of family members that smoke [among Indigenous populations] so there is a greater need for health campaigns supporting them to quit,” she said.
Indigenous smoking rate ‘linked to disadvantage’
The territory’s peak Aboriginal Health Service, Winnunga Nimmityjah, runs its own targeted support services urging smokers to quit.
“The amount of stress in our community means often women start to smoke at quite early ages. Some people have other serious issues and just aren’t in the right space to quit,” chief executive Julie Tongs said.
“It is absolutely the socioeconomic disadvantage in our community that is why the majority of people smoke.
“You can’t address the [smoking] issue without addressing all of the others.”
Ms Tongs said education about the harms smoking while pregnant could cause the baby and mother had helped many young women quit.
Julie Tongs says many Indigenous pregnant women face social disadvantage. (666 ABC Canberra: Hannah Walmsley)
The ACT Health Officer’s report found the average birth weight for babies of mothers who smoked during pregnancy was significantly lower than those of non-smokers.
Lung Foundation Australia chief executive Heather Allan echoed concerns about the ACT’s teenage pregnancy smoking rate. These concerns were a main driver for the new initiative Quit4October, which encourages smokers to quit cold turkey for a month.
“The ACT’s smoking rate is the lowest in all of the states in Australia but there are pockets of high smoking prevalence, that is in Indigenous populations and young mothers,” Ms Allan said.
“It is important for us to be able to provide the support where it is needed.”
The Women’s Centre for Health Matters will launch a new website on Monday with links to local support services for pregnant women who want to give up smoking.