Slowed progress in curbing smoking among pregnant women

MILWAUKEE – Despite admirable drops in the rates of Wisconsin women who smoked during pregnancy since 1990, decline in the prevalence of maternal smoking during the last eight years has slowed significantly. A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) shows which populations have been less successful, offering clues for interventions that will help the state further improve.

“After a large decline in smoking among pregnant women between 1990 and 2003, it appears that progress has leveled off,” says Karen Palmersheim, the study’s author at UWM’s Center for Urban Initiatives and Research (CUIR). “This is an important public health concern, because pregnant women who smoke put themselves and their babies at risk for premature rupture of membranes, stillbirth, preterm delivery and sudden infant death syndrome.”

“The study found important indicators of women who are at continued risk of smoking during pregnancy,” adds Palmersheim, “Including young women, single mothers, those who don’t get prenatal care and Native American women.”

About one in eight women in Wisconsin – 13% – smoked during pregnancy in 2010, the last year covered by the study, compared to nearly one in four 22 years ago.

But the prevalence of maternal smoking in Wisconsin was still higher than in the U.S. as a whole (9%) and it has dropped only slightly in recent years.

The largest difference between demographic groups is indicated by levels of education. Among women with a college degree, 2% smoked during pregnancy. In contrast, the prevalence of maternal smoking is seven times greater among women with some college, and 12 times greater among women with a high school education or less.

Age and single parenthood also were associated with an increased likelihood of maternal smoking. One-third of white women aged 18 to 19 smoked during pregnancy, compared to only 8% of white women age 30 or older. Women who were not married were four times more likely to smoke during their pregnancy than married pregnant women.

Overall, pregnant white and black women smoked at the same rate (about 15%), but American Indian women smoke at a much higher rate (37%), while Hispanic (6%) and Laotian/Hmong (5%) women smoke at much lower rates.

The differences among groups within the population are also reflected in differences among counties. For example, the lowest prevalences of maternal smoking were observed in Ozaukee (7%), Waukesha (8%), Dane (9%) and Calumet (9%) counties. The highest rates of maternal smoking were found in Menominee (39%), Burnett (35%), Sawyer (31%) and Forest (31%) counties.

“Infants born to women who smoke are twice as likely to be low birth weight,” says Palmersheim. “Being low birth weight is associated with decreased lung function and less brain development at birth. And the mortality rate for these infants is also about twice the rate of babies born to mothers who do not smoke.”

Help for pregnant women who want to quit smoking is available from the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation’s First Breath Program. Smokers who want to quit can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.


(Contact: Karen Palmersheim, (608) 516-6063,