Women smokers who are pregnant or planning to conceive can now get help to butt out through a website that emphasizes support instead of guilt or shame.
PREGNETS (Prevention of Gestational and Neonatal Exposure to Tobacco Smoke), developed by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, focuses on building support for women through the use of an online discussion board.
The site includes a personalized quit meter, self-help materials and tips on having a healthy pregnancy and being a supportive partner.
Surveys show about one in 10 Canadian women smokes while pregnant.
But Dr. Peter Selby said the number could be as high as 30 per cent.
The goal of PREGNETS is to help women overcome their addiction or to at least significantly cut down the amount they smoke, though Selby stressed "there is no safe amount of smoke exposure while pregnant."
A woman who smokes during pregnancy raises her risk of miscarriage, as well as other well-documented conditions like cancer and cardiovascular disease. "The risk to the fetus is an immediate risk," said Selby, clinical director of CAMH's addictions program. "They're much more likely to be premature, likely what we call small for gestational age, and then they have a higher risk of things like sudden infant death syndrome and upper respiratory tract infections."
The offspring of mothers who smoked while pregnant are also more likely to develop behavioural problems and are at increased risk for obesity in adolescence, studies suggest.
Selby said the online tool is meant to help women overcome the stigma associated with smoking while pregnant.
"The problem is if you're addicted, a couple of things happen: you go underground, you become a closet smoker. You don't seek out help because you feel you'll get judged.
"And you're going through a pregnancy - which should be a nice, happy time - feeling guilty and trapped and worrying what the outcome might be."
Experts have long pointed out that tobacco is one of the most difficult addictions to overcome.
"It's not that simple to just stop, no matter what the compelling reasons are," including having had a heart attack or an organ transplant, he said.
Selby said society tends to "pick on mothers," when partners and other family members who use tobacco also contribute harm by exposing the pregnant woman and her fetus to second-hand smoke.
PREGNETS also provides up-to-date evidence-based information on smoking and quitting for health-care practitioners, he said.
"There's a lot of misinformation. Some say: 'Don't quit smoking because it's too stressful for the baby.' That's a myth," said Selby, but one that seems to be perpetuated worldwide.