Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Should pregnancy 'be incentive enough' to quit smoking?

Guest post by Susan Jones, Research Associate, Teesside University

I have seen many people on twitter express the view that thinking about their baby should make pregnant women automatically quit smoking. Indeed many women when they decide to try for a baby or find out they are pregnant do quit smoking. However, it does seem illogical - and shocking - to many that this is not always the case.

For those who do continue to smoke, it is perhaps more of a hint of a complex web of reasons behind their smoking behaviour, rather than any greater willingness to harm their baby. Smoking throughout pregnancy is often associated with environmental and social deprivation, which gives us a clue. Hilary Graham’s seminal work into women’s smoking and its association with family health, published in 1987, opened the door to a new understanding of what some of the reasons might be for this apparently illogical and paradoxical behaviour on the part of pregnant women from deprived communities. Graham concluded that:
"The study suggests that, for a significant minority of mothers, poverty and caring combine with low levels of physical and emotional energy, with sleep problems and with feelings of social isolation. In this context, smoking appeared to provide a way of coping with caring-in-poverty: a way of coping alone with the demands of full-time caring and with the struggle of making ends meet."
This work revealed that there were other, stronger reasons to continue smoking, which counteracted any impulse to quit.

Guilt and shame

An earlier study of ours heard pregnant smokers confess to feeling guilty and ashamed of smoking in pregnancy and how they are very aware of the stigma associated with their behaviour:
“But then once I lit it up and had half of it I felt guilty. But it took that edge away, but I still felt guilty. So if I felt even more guilty I probably mebbees wouldn’t have touched it, but I feel weak because I have had to do it.”

“I think the kids always make it like, they have more effect on you than what anyone else does, because they're, well you feel guilty if you're letting them down and doing something they don't want you to do.”
We also found that sometimes it can be a distrust of public health messages combined with a real lack of knowledge about the mechanics of how smoking affects the developing baby. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that, for whatever reason, not everyone says they want to quit; but of those who do want to quit, some say they do not feel able to. For the sceptics out there, this may seem only subtly different to choosing to smoke, alternatively it may be a real barrier to quitting. Graham’s work would suggest the latter. More recent research has built on her findings and investigated what methods of support may work for these pregnant women, who do not quit, and for whom the health outcomes are comparatively worse for themselves and their babies.

What can be done?

Research over several decades has shown that there are ways to support pregnant women to quit smoking, focusing on:
  • Referring to stop smoking support services
  • Offering support to change behaviour
  • Support through medication.
It is clear now that opt-out approaches to referral and carbon monoxide monitoring and much more personalised support are also helpful to women (see our short video below).


Work has been undertaken to implement these supports more fully; e.g. the Local Maternity Systems (LMS) in North East England designed the Maternity Pathway and have led the work across the organisational systems to integrate these mechanisms. Becca Scott, the North East Local Maternity Systems Public Health Prevention Lead says:
"The LMS have led North East organisations and service users to contribute to the target of 5% or less women smoking in pregnancy by 2025. That would mean 2723 fewer women smoking at time of delivery across the North East since 2018. It does this by offering all expectant mothers, and their partners, a multiagency-developed, smoke-free pregnancy pathway and minimum service standards (as detailed in each of the Maternity providers bespoke plans). The impact of the engagement with the work has seen prioritisation throughout all Local Authority Health and Wellbeing boards, as well as consistency in the way smoking in pregnancy is identified and supported, which is demonstrated in significant improvement in adherence to NICE Guidance."
What more can be done?

The results of this partnership work are encouraging. Is there anything else that can be done? The evidence for the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of financial incentives to support pregnant women to quit has been building. Trials have been conducted which have found that there is "substantial evidence for the efficacy of incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy" – however this idea has encountered significant public scepticism and opposition.

ash. Smoking in Pregnancy Challenge Group Webinar - Incentive schemes

Although there has been more balanced reporting too and more recently, the headline below suggests the idea has become more acceptable.

Capture from The Sun online (09/03/21)

Modelling financial incentives in smoking in pregnancy

A team of us (details below*) have been awarded funding from the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East & North Cumbria Open Funding Competition to look into an alternative way to take into account the views and responses from all stakeholders, including staff, pregnant women, and the public. We will also be building a mathematical model based on Evolutionary Game Theory (EGT). EGT is a mathematical framework of contests, strategies and analytics into which Darwinian evolution can be modelled. It is designed to capture the strategic interactions between stakeholders, because ultimately these interactions will drive health behaviour. Incentivisation will be modelled to see how it affects some behaviours and in what contexts. We hope the model will be able to guide commissioning and provision, so that any intervention is as effective and cost-effective as possible, without having to conduct further lengthy and expensive trials beforehand. Watch this space!

*Associate Professor Emma Giles (Teesside University), Professor Falko Sniehotta (Newcastle University and University of Twente), Dr Jean Adams (University of Cambridge) and other partners working in NHS Trusts and local authorities. Colleagues in the School of Computing, Design and Digital Technologies, Associate Professor The Anh Han and Tedy Cimpeanu from Teesside University.

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