babies on rise
CANNABIS smoking during
pregnancy is a more dire problem in Australia
than previously thought, and the effect on
babies is severe, a world-first study has
The problem is compounded
by the fact that 90 per cent of drug-addicted
expectant mothers smoke cigarettes, raising
further the risk to their babies.
The dramatic findings come from a large-scale
University of NSW study, published in the
British journal, Addiction, of more than
415,000 births in NSW between 1998 and 2002.
Researchers at the UNSW's National Drug and
Alcohol Research Centre examined the effect of
opioids, stimulants and cannabis on the
developing foetus, finding all had negative
Chief investigator Dr Lucy Burns said one
in 150 babies was born to a woman who used
drugs during pregnancy.
The figures, from information collected
during pregnancy check-ups, were "extremely
conservative'' but still represented only a
small but disadvantaged group of women.
These users were younger than other mothers,
mostly unmarried, had a higher number of
previous pregnancies and almost universally
lacked private insurance.
Cannabis was used in more than 2100
pregnancies, a result Dr Burns said was both
surprising and disturbing.
Health statistics for these babies were not
as dire as for those 2000 babies born to women
addicted to opioids, like heroin, or the 550
born to users of stimulants, like
They were more likely to be premature,
however, to have a low birth weight and
require hospital intensive care than non-drug
"We've always regarded cannabis as a bit of
a soft drug and we haven't put a lot of
emphasis on use in pregnant women because it
doesn't have the immediate dramatic effects
you see with some of the other drugs," Dr
"It's been off the radar, but clearly we
should have been paying much more attention."
Compounding the problem was that about 90
per cent of drug-using women were also
addicted to tobacco.
"In particular, there's a potent
combination when heavy smokers also use
cannabis with tobacco," she said.
"That combination of nicotine, tobacco and
other chemicals and the cannabis hits babies
Dr Burns said she was mostly disturbed by
the small group of severely disadvantaged
women who used stimulants, particularly given
that use of these drugs was on the rise.
"Our stimulant group of mothers were the
ones who were latest to access antenatal
services, the most likely to turn up for
delivery unbooked and the most likely to smoke
heavily," Dr Burns said.
"We don't have specialist services for
these women, or a good handle on the best
treatments for them, so they're slipping
through the net."
She said there was an urgent need to focus
on new and innovative ways to assist drug-using
women to reduce use of all such substances,
including tobacco, in pregnancy.
In particular, there needed to be more
early engagement, better continuity of care
and increased rates of screening for drug use
during pregnancy, she said.