From: Reuters
Published February 28, 2008 04:11 PM

Tobacco poses threat to moms in developing world

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Pregnant women's exposure to tobacco in developing countries is growing at an alarming rate, U.S. government researchers said on Thursday.

Women in developing countries and their children are increasingly breathing secondhand smoke in their homes, they said, and many are beginning to experiment with smoking, raising the risk of cancer, heart disease and other ills not only for themselves but also for their children.

"Pregnant women's tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke threaten to impede or reverse ongoing efforts to improve maternal and child health in the developing world," said Dr. Michele Bloch of the National Cancer Institute's Tobacco Control Research Branch, whose study appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

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The study is the first to examine pregnant women's tobacco use, exposure to secondhand smoke and attitudes about tobacco use in many developing countries.

It involved 8,000 interviews with pregnant women at 10 study sites in nine countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Guatemala in Latin America; Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa; two sites in India and one in Pakistan.

The researchers found as many as 18 percent of pregnant women smoked cigarettes, up to one-third used smokeless tobacco and as many as half regularly breathed in secondhand smoke.

Bloch said these trends represent a major shift among women in developing countries, where historically about 9 percent of women used tobacco, due in part to strong cultural taboos.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death among women in developed countries, and Bloch said the findings offer a chance to intervene before women in the developing world match that grim statistic.

SMOKING "EPIDEMIC"

"Latin America is where the epidemic of cigarette smoking is most advanced, particularly in Uruguay, where 78 percent of all pregnant women said they had ever tried a cigarette," Bloch said in a telephone interview.

In Argentina, she said 75 percent of pregnant women interviewed said they had tried smoking.

All of the Latin American sites studied found large numbers of women who had experimented with smoking. Bloch said she thinks that as more cultural and economic barriers to women's smoking fall, more of these women will become regular smokers.

Smokeless tobacco was used by a third of the women in the Indian state of Orissa, while the highest levels of secondhand smoke exposure were found in Pakistan.

"Young children in Pakistan are frequently or always exposed to tobacco smoke indoors. The numbers were also high in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and one of the Indian states," Bloch said.

Smoking poses serious risks to fetal and maternal health and can result in pre-term delivery, low birth weight and sudden infant death. In adults, smoking can cause lung and other cancers while smokeless tobacco can cause oral and pancreatic cancers.

Secondhand smoke causes cancer in adults and lung problems such as pneumonia in young children.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Xavier Briand)

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