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Smokers significantly more likely than others to drink alcohol during pregnancy

Drinking alcohol while pregnant is common across all social groups but women are significantly more likely to drink if they also smoke, reveals an international study.

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Researchers analysed data from three studies: Growing up in Ireland (GUI); Screening for Endpoints (SCOPE); and the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS). The studies assessed alcohol consumption before and during pregnancy and involved 17,244 women who delivered live babies in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

The analysis reveals low adherence to guidelines advising complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, while in the UK many women ignore advice to drink no more than 1-2 units once or twice a week.

Alcohol use during pregnancy ranged from 20-80% in Ireland, and from 40% in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. There were also high levels of binge drinking during pregnancy. The number of units of alcohol consumed dropped substantially in all countries between the first and second trimester, as did instances of binge drinking.

Smoking was the strongest and most consistent predictor of alcohol use across all cohorts and countries examined, with women who smoke 17-50% more likely to drink while pregnant.

Alcohol use was pervasive across all social groups, but black and minority ethnic women were less likely than white women to drink alcohol while pregnant. A higher level of education, having other children and being overweight or obese were also associated with a lower risk of drinking.

The authors conclude that the widespread consumption of even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy is a significant public health concern.

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