MILTON — A 2016 study by the Florida Department of Health shows the percentage of women in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties who smoke while pregnant is much higher than in Florida as a whole.

The statewide rate was 5.8 percent in 2016. But in Santa Rosa County, 10.8 percent of women smoked during pregnancy. The rate was 12.8 percent in Oklaoosa County and 16.6 percent in Walton County.

“We are a smaller county with smaller numbers, so sometimes it is better to use a three-year rolling average,” said Martha Zimmerman, executive director of Healthy Start Coalition of Santa Rosa County. “So if you look at the statistics from 2013-2015, Santa Rosa County’s rate was 11.3 percent and the state rate was 6.2 percent.  The provisional three-year rolling average for 2014-2016 is Santa Rosa at 11.2 percent and the state was at 5.7 percent.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking while pregnant can cause many health problems, including premature birth, certain birth defects and infant death.

Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely than other women to have a miscarriage. Smoking can cause problems with the placenta — the source of the baby's food and oxygen during pregnancy — which can separate from the womb too early and cause bleeding, which is dangerous to the mother and baby, according to the CDC.

Smoking during pregnancy can cause a baby to be born too early or to have low birth weight, making it more likely the baby will be sick and have to stay in the hospital longer. A few babies may even die.

Babies born to women who smoke are more likely to have certain birth defects, such as a cleft lip or cleft palate, according to the CDC.

Smoking during and after pregnancy is a risk factor of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Of women who smoked three months before pregnancy, 55 percent quit during pregnancy. Among women who quit smoking during pregnancy, 40 percent started smoking again within six months after delivery, according to the CDC.

According to Zimmerman, 15 percent of babies in Santa Rosa County from 2013-15 born preterm — less than 37 weeks — were born to mothers who smoked while pregnant. 

"This compares to a state rate of 7.3 percent," Zimmerman said. "Also, of those women that received late or no prenatal care from 2013-2015, 15.6 percent were to mothers who smoke while across the state 14.4 percent were to mothers who smoked.

"Although our rates have come down since Healthy Start in Santa Rosa County began in 1992 — when we were at 21.8 percent compared to the state at 16.3 percent — to our 2015 rate of 11 percent, as we celebrate 25 years in the county we still have work to do to continue to improve the health of our pregnant women and the health of our babies."

West Florida Area Health Education Centers offers group classes as a part of the Tobacco Free Florida AHEC cessation program, according to Nicole Larson, tobacco cessation and training manager with AHEC.

Anyone in Florida can receive free help to quit tobacco and free nicotine replacement therapy. The West Florida AHEC office is working in Santa Rosa County to help pregnant women who are using tobacco quit, according to Larson.

“We have held our first cessation class, just for pregnant women, at the Pregnancy Resource Center in Milton and are in the process of scheduling more,” Larson said. “The classes are free and are very informational and non-judgmental. We want to support our clients' work toward their goal of being tobacco free.

“It is certainly a group effort to get these expecting clients into cessation classes," she added. "The Department of Health in Santa Rosa County and Healthy Start of Santa Rosa County are wonderful partners who are working hard to make this initiative, helping pregnant women quit tobacco, successful.”