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Website aims to help pregnant smokers kick habit with information, peer support

Website aims to help pregnant smokers kick habit with information, peer support

TORONTO - 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), which is developed by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, focuses on building a community of support with other women through the use of an online discussion board.

The site also includes a personalized quit meter, various self-help materials, tips on having a healthy pregnancy, and partner support.

Surveys show that about one in 10 Canadian women smoke while pregnant. But Dr. Peter Selby said it's likely the proportion of women continuing to use tobacco during gestation could be as high as 30 per cent, depending on the population segment being studied.

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."

"It is dangerous to both the woman and the fetus, it's not just the fetus," he said Thursday.

A woman who smokes during pregnancy puts herself in danger of miscarriage, as well as risking other well-documented diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease.

"The risk to the fetus is an immediate risk," Selby said. "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."

As children, 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 providing an online quitting tool is meant to help women overcome the stigma associated with smoking while pregnant.

While experiencing society's censure can provide the impetus for some women to kick the habit, it can also lead to an unwanted result, he said.

"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."

The website also provides up-to-date evidence-based information on smoking and quitting for health-care practitioners that can be shared with patients, he said.

"Not a lot of professionals know what to do. 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.

Still, PREGNETS isn't about only "dry knowledge or facts" — it's about women having a forum for exchanging ideas and finding peer support, he said.

"The anonymity the Internet provides could potentially provide a place for women who may be very isolated but have access to the Internet to get information and share their ideas and thoughts and feelings and worries and fears, without the risk of being judged," he said.

"Now there's a space where if you're not comfortable telling your health-care provider or your family or whomever, it doesn't mean you're alone."


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