In an ideal world, pregnant mothers wouldn’t smoke, we’d all walk to work and no one would eat junk food. On BBC Radio Kent this morning I put the rational, evidence based case for encouraging mums-to-be to quit smoking through the tried and tested scheme of giving vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables for every week that they don’t smoke. It’s a win-win-win scenario: low cost – healthier mum – healthier baby. Started in Dundee over eight years ago as the ‘Give it up for Baby’ scheme, this smoking cessation support has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of encouraging mothers to quit.
However the Tax Payers Alliance (TPA) object, pouring scorn on mothers who should know better, saying we already spend loads on teenage mums and claiming this scheme is adding to our national debt.
Yet their argument for non-interference based on rising debt is idealistic economics; their repeated accusations of nannying contradicts their concern for prudent use of taxes; their claim that mothers should need no incentives to make good choices ignores reality.
Economically, the long-term costs to the nation of low birth-weight babies born to mums who smoke can be enormous. In addition to the extra post-natal support to help babies gain weight, the risks to the child include breathing problems, sleep apnea, heart problems, jaundice, chronic lung disorders and infections. Some go on to have long-term problems with hyperactivity, development and school achievement.
The extra cost of just one baby born prematurely due to the mother smoking could outweigh the entire-cost of offering a hundred mothers weekly £12.50 grocery vouchers for quitting. The TPA mean well, and it is right to ensure that we don’t rack up more debt. However our concern should be that taxes are spent in the most effective way possible, and whilst others can preach about their Utopian idyl, the rest of us should focus on the evidence, intelligent incentives and the best way to deliver a caring economy.