Convincing pregnant women to stop smoking would make dramatic improvements in infant health and survival rates, lawmakers exploring how to spend tobacco funds were told Tuesday.
State Health Officer Dr. Mary Guinan told a committee about half of infants born below acceptable birth weights wind up with problems that require special education once they reach schools and that the biggest cause of low birth weight babies is moms who smoke while pregnant.
In Nevada, Guinan said, up to 28 percent of pregnant mothers smoke.
"It is the most common preventable cause of low birth weight," said Guinan. "We need to educate mothers. We need to educate doctors. We need treatment programs targeted toward pregnant mothers."
The comments were made during the committee's discussion on where to spend 60 percent of the estimated $40 million in tobacco settlement funds Nevada will receive each year under the national agreement with tobacco companies.
Fully $20 million a year will go into the Trust Fund for a Healthy Nevada to pay for prescriptions for seniors and the disabled, public health programs for children and anti-smoking campaigns.
In addition, lawmakers and the governor set aside 40 percent of the total settlement for the Millennium scholarship program that will help support college classes for every Nevada high school graduate with a B or better average.
Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, who heads the health study committee, said the panel will devote a meeting to each of the groups eligible for part of the health money, beginning with children.
Guinan urged that the emphasis for as many programs as possible be on prevention rather than treatment. She pointed out that Nevada has a very high rate of teen smoking and the nation's highest teen pregnancy rate.
"We don't invest in prevention or value it as a society," she said, adding that dollars spent preventing children from starting smoking and convincing pregnant women to stop do much more good than treating and dealing with the health problems smoking causes later.
"But prevention is cut very frequently when there is success and then the rates go back up," she said. "Prevention isn't valued."
The committee reviewed teen smoking rates, estimates of how many Nevada children don't have health insurance and other factors.
No decisions were on the agenda for Tuesday. The panel will settle on what types of programs to recommend in all different categories after three more hearings, including the needs of seniors, the disabled and for advertising and anti-smoking education programs.