Health: No more surreptitious smoking for fathers-to-be

We all know pregnant women should stop smoking. Now studies suggest partners must quit for their children's health, too.

MOTHERS-TO-BE increasingly find themselves in the firing line of all kinds of prejudices, misconceptions and conflicting rules of behaviour. Everything from alcohol consumption to ready-bagged salad, mobile phones and, most recently, the so-called motherhood gene, makes today's pregnant women feel guilty before they've even become mothers.

This cumulative guilt passes by today's "expectant" fathers, however, whose lifestyles remain largely unaltered. The more health- conscious may cut down on alcohol prior to conception and smokers may blow their cigarette smoke to one side rather than in their partner's way, but that's about it.

Now, however, a study on passive smoking suggests that paternal responsibility starts in utero. According to a small but ground-breaking study by Dr Barry Finette, of Vermont University, exposure to passive smoking has, for the first time, been directly linked to genetic damage inside the womb. The mutations in the genes of newborns exposed to passive smoking in utero are the same as those found in childhood leukaemia and lymphoma.

The message, according to Dr Finette, is clear: pregnant women and their partners should stop smoking. Even in nicotine-phobic America, however, it does not always get through. "When I was a paediatrician," says Dr Finette, "I would impress on both partners that it was very important not to smoke and for them to stop smoking. Often one or the other would say, `I always smoke downstairs in another room, never in front of my baby'. I tell them it's like baking cookies. You may be baking them downstairs but you can usually smell them upstairs. It's the same with cigarette smoke."

The message falls on even deafer ears in the UK. Only one in six women who smoke give up when they become pregnant, says the Health Education Authority, and more than one in four pregnant women continue to smoke throughtheir pregnancies. Since 1992 the HEA has been monitoring the smoking behaviour of pregnant women but, to date, there has been no survey of the smoking behaviour of male partners of expectant women. The Finette study may change that.

According to Clive Bates, director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), the dangers of passive smoking and smoking when pregnant are not taken sufficiently seriously. "Women, as well as men, are failed by the healthcare services.They are given a half-hearted warning about the danger of smoking, if any warning at all." The HEA, however, does produce a leaflet, "Help Your Partner Stop Smoking", which outlines the dangers of smoking to the pregnant mother and her unborn baby, and urges her partner to help her by giving up at the same time.

People who have never smoked have an estimated 30 per cent greater risk of heart disease if they live with a smoker - almost half the risk of smoking 20 cigarettes a day - and as many as 17,000 admissions to hospital in under fives can be attributed to parental smoking.

But as yet the HEA has no campaign targeting fathers who fail to give up during their partner's pregnancy. "It is not an issue they (male smokers) really wish to engage in," says Dean Mahoney, spokesman for the National Smoking Education Campaign. "Our main priority is pregnant women."

Jenny Thompson, a 34-year-old marketing manager, is married to a smoker. Their daughter is now approaching her first birthday. At no stage has Jenny been advised of the dangers of passive smoking, nor was she given the HEA leaflet during her pregnancy.

Nor, of course, was her husband, Peter Robinson, a 34-year-old advertising executive. He is perhaps typical of many male partners when he describes his "general awareness that there is a risk to pregnant women from passive smoking. I think it can lead to foetal development problems and diseases in later life, though what they are I don't know - cancer and all sorts of stuff, I also understand it affects sperm production. But I don't know if it has a knock-on genetic effect. Are those gene faults passed on to the child?

"My smoking habits went uninterrupted by Jenny's pregnancy. I didn't cut down and still smoke 15 cigarettes a day, but mostly at work. I have about two in the evening, but I always go out in the garden."

Peter may not realise it, but he faces a nine-year stretch of clandestine puffing if he wants to safeguard his daughter's health. According to Dr Finette, the dangers from exposure to passive smoking, compounded by damage caused by exposure to pesticides and other environmental pollutants, persist for the first 10 years of a child's life, with the child being most vulnerable up to the age of five.

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