England’s top midwife warns ‘tens of thousands’ still smoking during pregnancy

Women who smoke during pregnancy are putting themselves and their baby at risk of serious harm unless they kick the habit, the NHS has warned.

The NHS’ chief midwife has spoken out as new stats released today (Tuesday) show that although fewer adults overall are smoking, and maternity smoking specifically has fallen from 92,123 women ten years ago, last year more than 61,399 mums-to-be – more than one in ten of all pregnant women – were still smoking at the time they gave birth.

As part of the health service’s Long Term Plan for England, all pregnant women will be offered specialist ‘Quit smoking’ advice, and an electronic carbon monoxide test during antenatal appointments.

The new data show Blackpool, Corby, Durham and Mansfield are among a number of areas where more than one in five mums-to-be is a smoker at the time of labour; while expectant mothers in the London region are least likely to be smokers, with fewer than one in 20.

Although the number of women smoking while pregnant has fallen by nearly a third in the past decade from 14.6% of all pregnancies in 2008/9 to 10.6% in 2018/19, the rate of decrease has slowed in recent years.

As well as being a leading cause of cancer, lighting up during pregnancy causes particular health problems for women and even death for their babies, as well as leading to complications in adulthood as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, chief midwifery officer for England, said: “Having a baby in this country is now safer than ever but smoking while carrying a baby puts both parent and child at avoidable and potentially deadly risk.

“No woman should have to experience the heartbreak of stillbirth, and quitting smoking is absolutely vital for a healthy mum and a healthy baby.

“The NHS Long Term Plan sets out a programme of measures including stop smoking classes for all pregnant women, which will make giving birth even safer, and build on progress in NHS care which has helped reduce stillbirths by 20%.”

The statistics today from NHS Digital, which also include figures on prevalence of smoking by age, prescriptions data, E-cigarette prevalence,  hospital admissions and death due to smoking, show that the number of adult cigarette smokers in England has dropped by around 1.8m from 7.7m in 2011 to 5.9m in 2018.

On smoking during pregnancy, NHS action means that:

  • All pregnant women will be offered an electronic carbon monoxide test at their antenatal appointments.
  • Any woman referred for specialist advice to quit will get it.
  • Any expectant mum who smokes or has recently quit will be offered specialist support throughout pregnancy, including as late as 36 weeks into the baby’s development.

The government has set a national ambition to reduce the number of women smoking at the time of delivery to less than 6% of all pregnancies by 2022.

Two-thirds of areas in London achieved this target with parts of the capital seeing rates of between 1% and 3%.

At the other end of the scale is Blackpool, where more one in four women continued to smoke all the way up to the birth of their child.

NHS Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) showed 20.5% smoke at time of delivery, while NHS Blackpool CCG showed 25.7%, NHS Mansfield and Ashfield CCG showed 21.4% and NHS Corby CCG showed 20.4%.