Smoking during pregnancy is a really bad idea. It has been associated with low birth weight, oral facial abnormalities and congenital heart disease, and behaviour problems for the child.
You know what else is a really bad idea? This ad by the Cancer Society of Finland:
“A mother can be her baby’s worst enemy,” it says, and equates smoking in pregnancy with puncturing, slashing and poisoning your baby, then throwing it to a snake.
This dramatic overstatement is something we see, over and over again, in scare and guilt PSAs. No matter how much researchers find that shame is a really bad strategy for social marketing, organizations continue to use it thinking that if only “these people” knew the harm they were doing, they’d stop.
The problem is, these approaches do nothing to help people with addictions or other drug dependencies improve their lives. It may make people who already think this behaviour is bad feel better about themselves, at the expense of those they see as less virtuous. But for the women targeted, it just pushes them away, telling them they are bad people instead of offering to help with reasonable harm reduction that respects their autonomy and their challenges.
This campaign is particularly heinous in the way it polices the woman during her pregnancy. While cigarettes are the most socially unacceptable personal indulgence for pregnant women today, alcohol is also much vilified. But the list also includes fear-based prohibitions on getting one’s hair coloured, eating raw milk cheese or sushi, drinking coffee… the list is almost endless. And when we impose this list, in a punitive way, on pregnant women the message is clear: “Your body is not your own — you have a baby developing inside you, so it now belongs to all of us!”
Never mind that the pregnant woman’s fetus is also vulnerable to things she may have little control over, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, pesticides, residual heavy metals in practically everything, common food borne bacteria in cold cuts, raw veggies, sprouts and soft boiled eggs, over-the-counter medications, new car smell, dry cleaned clothes, plastics…
I’m not saying that women should smoke while pregnant, just because it is practically impossible to avoid toxins that can cause damage to the baby. But when we start telling smoking moms-to-be that they’re practically murderers, where do we stop “protecting” them?