One of the most disturbing things that I have learned is that African American babies in Southeastern Wisconsin die at higher rates than babies born in Panama and Botswana. Learning that our African American babies die before their first birthday more often than babies in some developing countries was disheartening. But there is hope in each and every one of us.
African American babies in our state have high infant mortality rates for many reasons, but one reason is tobacco exposure. Tobacco use and secondhand smoke can negatively impact birth outcomes. African Americans smoke at higher rates than the general population (33 percent compared to about 20 percent), and these higher smoking rates contribute to adverse birth outcomes in our communities. Smoking during pregnancy increases the risks of low-birth weight babies and the occurrence of heart birth defects.
Wisconsin’s smoke-free air law protects pregnant mothers from the harmful affects of secondhand smoke, but we have much more work to do, especially in African American communities and in low-income communities where infant mortality rates are higher as well. Funding for our state’s comprehensive Tobacco Prevention and Control program (TPCP) is critical. If Governor Scott Walker’s 10 percent proposed budget cut to TPCP funds is increased, it will be difficult for the program to protect our society’s most vulnerable human beings— unborn babies.
Prevention is a key component of the work that must continue to be done. But along with prevention, TPCP also works hard to help smokers— especially pregnant women—quit and to prevent youth from starting to smoke in the first place. And the work that they are doing produces results: middle school smoking rates have dropped 67 percent, high school rates have dropped 46 percent, and adult rates have dropped 21 percent.
I understand our state’s finances are slim, but tobacco treatment and prevention efforts will save lives and money. Future generations deserve to be protected from deadly tobacco products, and that is exactly what the TPCP is doing—working to help current smokers while protecting our children, especially those who have not been born yet.