Each morning as I pass the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital on my way to the Dáil, I see pregnant women standing outside taking a smoke break before they return to their hospital beds. These women are often heavily pregnant and one cannot help but feel concern given the risk to their unborn babies and themselves.
The medical community is in no doubt about the dangers. According to the Irish Cancer Society, "smoking during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth and illness in early infancy". In fact, so sensitive is the unborn baby to the effects of smoke that the Irish Cancer Society says that smoking in the presence of a pregnant woman may also endanger the health of the foetus. Aside from these very serious risks of miscarriage and stillbirth, a recent study shows in stark detail the infection risks associated with smoking during pregnancy. The findings, published on 6 November in the US journal, Paediatric Infectious Diseases, show that babies born to mothers who have smoked during pregnancy are at increased risk of developing a wide range of infections. They are 50% more likely to be hospitalised or die as a result of these infections, compared with babies born to mothers who did not smoke during pregnancy.
We must do something to address this problem, but we must first know its extent. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI's, 2012 Perinatal Statistics Report calls for better tracking and recording of smoking during pregnancy in Ireland "given its importance as a risk factor for adverse perinatal outcomes". We simply do not know the extent to which Irish women continue to smoke throughout their pregnancies. It is important that we know the scale of the problem before we begin to address it.
I applaud the Minister for the stance he has taken on the general problem of smoking in this country. The proposed plan to introduce plain packaging is a welcome start. It must be noted, however, that any such initiatives must be brought forward in conjunction with measures to tackle the illegal trade in cigarettes, which is making life very difficult for retailers in this country. Recent figures from the retail industry show that one in four tobacco sales are illegal, according to ShelfLife, the retail magazine.
While I welcome the Minister's initiatives on smoking, I ask him to address the particular problem of smoking in pregnancy. In terms of finding solutions, education must be key, not only in the hospitals but also in our schools. For example, the risks of smoking during pregnancy must be outlined as a standard measure during antenatal classes and in other places attended by pregnant women. General practitioners, GPs, midwives and obstetricians must also receive special training in how to relay this critical information to pregnant women. We must be conscious that to give up smoking is a huge challenge for many people, and it is not made easier by the stresses and strains of the early stages of pregnancy. Young women, in particular, need our understanding and assistance in this matter, not a lecture.
We must equip our medical professionals to provide the advice and information in a compassionate way, but also in a way that leaves no doubt as to the dangers of smoking during pregnancy.