Medicine: Smoking During Pregnancy

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The U.S. Government plans to persuade 2,000 women to stop smoking. The aim is not simply to encourage abstinence from tobacco, nor will a woman become eligible merely by making known her desire to give up cigarettes. To qualify, a woman must have smoked during one recent pregnancy and be willing to quit smoking while carrying another child.

The experiment has been organized by the National Institutes of Health as part of a huge ten-year study of 50,000 pregnancies and the health and growth of the resulting children. Smoking during pregnancy is of special interest to the researchers because women who smoke seem more likely to have their babies prematurely. And prematurity, despite recent medical progress, is a hazard to health and even life: 50% of all babies who die in the first month after delivery are among the 7% born prematurely. Some doctors, though, see no direct connection between smoking and prematurity; they argue that the problem is a matter of temperament, that high-strung women who smoke would have a high proportion of "preemies" anyway. To make sure, NIH's Dr. Richard Masland wants to check the same mothers before and after they quit smoking.

The design of the experiment is straightforward enough, and it might have been started earlier but for one drawback: there was no way to check on the women being tested to make sure that they did not sneak an occasional secret drag. Now NIH has found a chemical detective. Researchers at San Antonio's Southwest

Research Institute have demonstrated that acetonitrile—a breakdown product of burned tobacco—can be detected in the urine of anyone who smokes three or more cigarettes a day. The women participating in the experiment will have to give daily urine specimens for analysis to make sure they are not cheating.