PREGNANT women are to be ‘paid’ to stop smoking, as part of a £49,500 public health pilot in Hertfordshire.

Smoking during pregnancy is known to increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, birth defects and low birth weight.

And it can impact on a child’s later life too – increasing the risk of infant mortality, respiratory diseases, psychological problems such as ADHD and obesity.

Data shows that in Hertfordshire 5.8 per cent of women – that’s 735 – continued to smoke throughout their pregnancies in 2018/19.

And although that’s significantly lower than the England average of 10.8 per cent, public health bosses say it’s still too high.

So, next year they are to pilot a scheme that would ‘pay’ pregnant women up to £300 in shopping vouchers to give up smoking.

As part of the pilot scheme any pregnant woman who agreed to set a ‘quit date’ would immediately be paid £50 of vouchers.

If they stopped for four weeks they’d qualify for a further £50 of vouchers – with further ‘payments’ of £100 after 12 and then 34 weeks.

But to qualify the women would have to take a breath test on a carbon monoxide monitor to prove they had stopped.

The vouchers can be used for a range of items –  such as food, baby clothing or baby equipment – but not for tobacco or alcohol.

The county council has put aside £49,500 for the 15-month trial, which is due to start in January.

And it was outlined to a meeting of the county council’s public health and prevention cabinet panel last Thursday (November 14).

At the meeting councillors heard that women who smoked during pregnancy were often stigmatised.

Typically, it was reported, they may be young and from a lower socio-economic group, have poor educational attainment and  a poor understanding of the risks smoking pose to their unborn baby.

They also, it was reported, find it harder to quit because pregnant women metabolise nicotine 60 per cent faster than other smokers – making smoking more additictive and withdrawal harder.

The pilot is part of a package of measures outlined to the cabinet panel that include training for midwives, routine carbon monoxide testing and specialist advisers to work intensively with pregnant smokers.

Medicines will be available to make quitting easier and there’ll be additional resources to help women understand the risks of smoking during pregnancy.

At the meeting the approach was broadly supported by councillors from all parties, including executive member for public health and prevention Cllr Tim Hutchings.

However Labour councillor Margaret Eames-Petersen suggested the financial incentives may encourage some women to ‘start’ smoking to qualify for the £300.

She said: “We are wanting them to give up smoking – not take up smoking so they can get the payent.”

But she was reassured there was no evidence that this had been the case in a previous pilot elsewhere.

Following the meeting director of public health Jim McManus said: “The consequences of smoking in pregnancy can be devastating to the family, and can impact on the health of an individual throughout infancy, childhood and as an adult.

“We understand how difficult stopping smoking can be; our role is to offer non-judgemental help and support. Our Saving Babies Lives initiative is part of our ongoing commitment to ensure that every child in Hertfordshire has the best start in life.

“Helping pregnant women to give up smoking is one of the most important things we can do to reduce the risk of harm and improve the health of babies for now and in the future.”

And commenting specifically on the financial incentives, he said: “The use of financial incentives has a strong evidence-base and has been shown to significantly increase quit rates and abstinence from smoking, so we have a responsibility to explore this as an option.”