Thursday, November 21, 2002

Here are some numbers to consider. In their dry way, they help explain why more babies die here than in any of the state’s other urban counties, a shameful fact of life in Forsyth County. As with so much else about our history, that, too, is tied to our tobacco heritage.

Over the last six years, 3,931 women smoked during their pregnancies, and 72 of them gave birth to babies who died.

In public-health terms, that translates into an infant-mortality rate of 18.3 deaths per 1,000 births, almost twice the rate of nonsmokers. In human terms, that is 72 lives cut short that might have been saved.

The numbers are even more startling for black women and their babies. During the same period, 1,235 black women smoked during pregnancy. Forty-four lost their infants, for an infant-death rate of 35.6, a cause of unmeasurable sorrow.

The Forsyth County Health Department released these figures Tuesday as part of its campaign to reduce infant mortality.

“This is the first time we’ve shown absolutely for Forsyth County that smoking and pregnancy is not a good thing,” said Dr Charles Woods, a pediatrician at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center who analyzed the data for the health department. “I think because we have such a history of being vested in tobacco we need to keep hearing this.”

No offense

Forsyth County has had the unenviable distinction of leading the state in infant mortality for more than 15 years now.

Dr. Robert Dillard, the director of the intensive-care nursery at Forsyth Medical Center, started talking about smoking and infant deaths back in 1995, when smoking rates here were almost twice those of other urban counties.

Numerous studies already had shown a link between smoking and infant deaths.

The health department and others working with its infant-mortality coalition did some things to help women quit. They trained nurses and doctors to help their pregnant patients stop smoking. They counseled women by phone. They offered smoking-cessation classes, but few people ever came.

People were reluctant to act boldly. No one wanted to offend the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., its 6,000 employees and the thousands of others here who owe their livelihoods to tobacco, or once did

Smoke-free stadiums

Well, we can stop worrying about offending Reynolds. First of all, there’s not much more anyone can say against tobacco to offend. And when it comes to pregnant women, the company has decided to abandon the argument that it makes for others, that adults have the right to choose a deadly habit.

“Our position, and it’s on our Web site, is we believe pregnant women should not smoke, and children and babies should not be exposed to secondhand smoke or any other air-borne pollutant,” said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for Reynolds,

So maybe Forsyth County is ready for what the health director, Dr. Tim Monroe, has planned.

He wants the health department to start a campaign for smoke-free restaurants. He also said he thinks that the school system can do a better job of setting an example for young people. He wants the school board to ban smoking on campus, even in teacher lounges and football stadiums.

“People might want to say, ‘Why do you want to bring it up here?’” he said. “But the reality is that the adverse effects of smoking are no different here than they are anywhere else.”

It’s only our heritage that’s different.