World-wide Study underlines the toxic effect of smoking and alcohol on babies | Western Cape Government


World-wide Study underlines the toxic effect of smoking and alcohol on babies

8 July 2018

Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Health Science brought together the findings of a 7-year study to determine contributing factors to poor outcomes of pregnancy. Prof Hein Odendaal of the SU was the co-ordinator of the South African arm of the study and convened the symposium. “It is the first international study of its kind, which was prospective, and took place over such a long time, with such a number of participating countries” says prof Odendaal.

Through assessing the mother and the unborn baby (until the child was 1-year-old) the research aimed to develop deeper insights into the negative effect of smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Besides confirming the toxic effect smoking and alcohol has on an unborn child, the study also focused on still birth risks and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which were shared at the symposium.

Findings about the toxic effect of smoking and alcohol

  • The combination of smoking and alcohol (dual exposure) results in a 3.8 times higher chance for stillbirth
  • With dual exposure there is a 12-fold higher risk for SIDS
  • Fetal growth (growth of the baby during pregnancy) is retarded when smoking, which is compounded with dual exposure (when the woman also drinks alcohol)
  • Preterm labor happens much more frequent with smoking and more so with dual exposure
  • Alcohol affect the critical development of the brain and negatively impact on the intellectual ability of the child once born
  • A child who had dual exposure struggles with emotional regulation, which is already prevalent by 2 years, leaving a family to handle a child with difficulty to control emotions

Attending the symposium was Dr Beth Engelbrecht, Head of the Western Cape Department of Health, who explained how the health system responds to these significant challenges: “Even though the Western Cape has relatively positive outcomes with only 4% unbooked deliveries and low maternal and infant mortality, much needs to be done.  What is concerning is that the study highlighted the reluctance of women to change their behavior, despite being made aware of the negative effects of substances on babies” says Dr Beth Engelbrecht.

Through its Whole of Society Approach (WoSA) the Health Department aims to involve  all government departments, to promote a better environment for women and their babies. A health baby is the product of many factors, which involves many partners: the education system, the local municipality and others. “We must all work together to prevent exposure of the baby to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs,” says Dr Engelbrecht”

Further stats from the study:

  • 57% of women smoked during pregnancy
  • 38% of women used alcohol during pregnancy, some of them regularly binging
  • There is a direct link between poverty and dual exposure (both drinking alcohol and nicotine)
  • There is a correlation between low scholastic achievements of the mother and the outcome of the baby
  • Although the participating mothers were well informed and educated about the risks of smoking and alcohol, many would not change.

Prof Hein Odendaal of the SU was the coordinator of the South African arm of the study and convened the symposium. The other speakers included the Head of Health, Western Cape Department of Health, Dr Beth Engelbrecht, Prof William Fifer from the University of Columbia, Dr Coen Groenewald, Mediclinic, Prof Lut Geerts, SU, Prof Robin Haynes, Boston Children`s Hospital, Dr. Amy Elliott of University of South Dakota and Prof Michael Myers of Columbia University.

Media Enquiries: 

Laticia Pienaar
Communications Officer: Tygerberg Hospital
081 039 4050