The smoking ban that came into effect in England in 2007 appears to have led to 1,500 fewer stillbirths and newborn deaths in just four years. A study led by researchers from the University of Edinburgh also found there were 5,000 fewer babies born with a low birth weight of less than 2.5kg (5.5lb) – which is linked with health complications in later life.
The team analysed information on more than 10 million births in England between 1995 and 2011. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the authors found there was an 8% reduction in the number of babies dying shortly after birth and a 6% drop in stillbirths since the ban was introduced.
Smoking and exposure to smoke during pregnancy are known to have long-term effects on the health of prenatal babies, such as an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Professor Aziz Sheikh, co-director of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Medical Informatics, said: "This study is further evidence of the potential power of smoke-free legislation to protect present and future generations from the devastating health consequences of smoking and second-hand exposure to tobacco smoke."
The report comes as the Royal Society for Public Health called for a smoking ban to be introduced to beer gardens and pub patios, based on the idea that smoking in these areas normalises the practice. It said: "By reducing the prominence of smoking in public locations, particularly those visited by children, we can ensure that smoking is no longer seen as a normal or safe activity."
Outcome of smoking bans
Previously, scientists have found rates of premature births have dropped significantly in countries where smoking bans are in place. Hospital admissions for children suffering asthma attacks and respiratory infections have also fallen since the legislation was introduced. But the latest study is the first to show smoking bans help reduce the risk of babies dying before or just after birth.
"Smoke-free legislation was associated with an immediate 7.8% reduction in stillbirth, a 3.9% reduction in low birth weight and a 7.6% reduction in neonatal mortality," the authors wrote.
"We estimate that in the first four years following smoke-free legislation, 991 stillbirths, 5,470 cases of low birth weight and 430 neonatal deaths were prevented. In conclusion, smoke-free legislation in England was associated with clinically important reductions in severe adverse perinatal outcomes."
Dr Jasper Been, honorary research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Currently, only around 18% of the world's population is protected by comprehensive smoke-free laws. Accelerated action to implement smoking bans in the many countries yet to do so is likely to save considerable numbers of young lives and bring a healthier future for our unborn children."
The Royal College of Midwives welcomed the report, saying it is pleased the smoking ban is impacting upon stillbirth and neonatal death rates. Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the RCM, said: "Exposure to cigarette smoke is detrimental to the health and well-being of pregnant women and their unborn babies. The evidence is clear in this the first study to show that smoke free legislation is working to reduce stillbirth and neonatal death rates.
"However, we must remain vigilant in ensuring that these hard-won protections for children, such as smoking bans, are not encroached upon by stealth through the introduction of smoking areas on terraces of restaurants and bars used by the public including pregnant women. It remains the case that exposure to cigarette smoke is detrimental to health of the pregnant woman and her unborn child."