How interagency and cross-sectoral partnerships are contributing to prevention of FASD

Over the past three years, the Co-Creating Evidence study (CCE) has been exploring best practices in the delivery of community-based wraparound programs that support pregnant and parenting women with substance use concerns in Canada. The CCE team recently published an article about how the partnerships fostered and maintained by community-based wraparound programs make a difference in their work and are in fact a best practice.

The CCE project team interviewed 60 partners and 108 staff of the eight programs involved in the CCE study. The interviews focused on the nature and benefits of interagency and cross-sectoral partnerships. The study found that these programs most commonly formed partnerships with child welfare and health services such as primary care, public health, mental health services and maternal addictions programmes, yet they also partnered to some degree with housing, income assistance, Indigenous cultural programming, infant development and legal services.

Key benefits of partnerships identified were:

  • improved access by clients to health and social care that addresses social determinants of health. This access includes expanded programming in the program sites, increased understanding of partners’ services, and greater ease of referral to other supports and programs as needed by clients.
  • increased knowledge on the part of both the interagency partners and the wraparound service providers about the experiences that women face, such as the significance of poverty and trauma to women’s substance use. In turn this positively promotes non-judgemental and trauma-informed approaches with pregnant women and new mothers, as well as provision of more multifaceted and paced supports to address their needs.
  • improved child welfare outcomes. The program level relationships with child welfare workers, and in some cases integration of a social worker onsite, results in increased planning for positive mother-child outcomes during the pregnancy, improved mother-child connections after birth and reduced likelihood of the infant being removed from the woman’s care at birth.
  • strengthened cultural safety within the programming and (re)connection to culture by women. Partnerships with Indigenous organizations enhances learning by program providers about how to work in a culturally safe way and increased opportunities for referral to Indigenous programming for those women interested in connecting to their culture as a part of their wellness/recovery.

“The programmes participating in the Co-Creating Evidence study were both creative and flexible when developing partnerships, seeking opportunities in areas in which they did not have the resources or expertise, as well as with services with whom they had a common cause, for example mutual clients, a shared desire to ‘wrap support’ around women to meet their evolving needs and aligned approaches (harm reduction, trauma informed practice).”

Hubberstey, C., Rutman, D., Van Bibber, M., & Poole, N. (2021). Wraparound programmes for pregnant and parenting women with substance use concerns in Canada: Partnerships are essential Health and Social Care in the Community  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/hsc.13664

The partnerships continue to evolve through dialogue, collaboration and communication. What the study has identified is how, through these partnerships, wraparound program providers are contributing to the reduction of fragmentation between the health, child welfare and addictions fields – and in turn to important benefits for clients in terms of access to care and enduring connections with their children. In the work on prevention of FASD, it has repeatedly been emphasized how important the role of “Level 3 and 4” programming is, particularly in how such programs attend to the range of determinants of women’s health and alcohol use. Clearly it is in part through partnership work that FASD prevention is achieved.

Addressing stigma as a catalyst to reduce alcohol use in pregnancy

Substance use and addiction are highly stigmatized, particularly for pregnant women and women of reproductive age. Women who use substances often experience multiple forms of stigma and are required to navigate notions of ‘good’ motherhood. This can contribute to women’s own belief that substance use during pregnancy is an uncaring choice. Despite the pervasiveness of stigma and public health efforts to counter it and to help women prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), women’s alcohol use during pregnancy is expected to increase.

Researchers from the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, University of Queensland, and the Canada FASD Research Network published a study exploring women’s reasons for continued alcohol use, reduction, and abstinence during pregnancy (1). In their research, they found that there is very little research that highlight’s women’s voices in efforts to understand the barriers and facilitator’s to alcohol use in pregnancy.

To analyze women’s reported barriers and facilitator’s to reducing alcohol use in pregnancy, the authors used the Action Framework for Building an Inclusive Health System. It was released in 2019 with Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer of Health’s 2019 report, and outlines different levels of stigma (individual, interpersonal, institutional, and population) and how they operate.

Stigma remains a pervasive challenge for pregnant and parenting women who use alcohol and other substances when accessing and receiving care. Interestingly, despite the literature’s focus on women’s individual choice about prenatal alcohol use, the barriers and facilitators to women’s alcohol use in pregnancy identified in this study were a result of interpersonal, institutional, and population-level factors, not individual choice.  

In Canada, toolkits and policy papers have been developed to contribute to addressing stigma and related barriers. In many countries, interventions are being developed and evidenced by communities and by health and other systems of care that are designed to reduce stigma and support women’s engagement in care, including:  

  • inclusive awareness building that reaches women, their partners and the public
  • relational, trauma-, gender- and culture-informed support offered by health and social care providers; and,
  • welcoming, non-judgmental services that wrap a wide range of needed practical supports around mothers and their children.

These interventions act as remedies to the challenges cited by pregnant women who use alcohol and find it difficult to reduce/stop alcohol use in pregnancy. In this way, action to prevent FASD can move beyond the usual recommendations for supporting individual change to be more accurately focused on service and system level changes that have the potential to make individual change possible.


  1. Lyall V, Wolfson L, Reid N, Poole N, Moritz KM, Egert S, et al. “The Problem Is that We Hear a Bit of Everything…”: A Qualitative Systematic Review of Factors Associated with Alcohol Use, Reduction, and Abstinence in Pregnancy. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(7).

“Learning to Understand”

When we first formed the Prevention Network Action Team over a decade ago, we insisted on calling it the Network Action Team on FASD Prevention from a Women’s Health Determinants Perspective.  We did not want FASD prevention to have a sole focus on stopping or reducing alcohol use but instead to have a wider focus on the need for changing systemic as well as personal and interpersonal influences on women’s alcohol use.  One such systemic influence is women’s experience of trauma and violence.

Understanding the impact of trauma and violence on women and gender diverse people’s lives has never been more important as we in Canada read and absorb the findings of Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. We are called upon to understand and act against systemic processes such as racism, sexism and misogyny, and structural oppression related to ongoing and widespread violence against women, social and economic marginalization of Indigenous women, and the multigenerational effects of horrific colonial and patriarchal practices.

The MMIWG report sets out seven principles for change that inform the 231 Calls for Justice needing action across federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments, industries, institutions, health care, child welfare, correctional services, and policing.  Some of these principles we have often discussed and promoted in our work on FASD prevention. They include:

  1. A focus on substantive equality and human and Indigenous rights
  2. A decolonizing approach
  3. The inclusion of families and survivors
  4. Self-determined and Indigenous-led solutions and services
  5. Recognition of distinctions (i.e., the diversity of Indigenous peoples)
  6. Cultural safety
  7. A trauma-informed approach

In addition to the Calls for Justice, several action plans have been created in order to enact change. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has committed to taking leadership and action to end the violence and genocide, and to the full implementation of an Action Plan they have developed for: ending the violence including all forms of race-and gender-based violence, and upholding dignity and justice for Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people in Canada. There are many opportunities within their Action Plan where we who are working on FASD prevention can work together on key actions they have identified.  Here are three examples:

  • Continue ongoing health, policy, research, training and programs to support Indigenous-led health initiatives (page 22)
  • Create and implement awareness building campaigns that will educate the public about MMIWG and the issues and roots of violence (page 38)
  • Monitor media stories and track inaccurate portrayal of Indigenous women (page 41), so that portrayals that perpetuate negative stereotypes of Indigenous women are challenged/stopped and the “curious silence” (page 388 of the MMIWG report) of the media in covering the lives of Indigenous women is addressed.

National and regional Inuit organizations have also developed an action plan. The National Inuit Action Plan was developed by a 10-member Working Group, co-chaired by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. The National Inuit Action Plan also identifies a wide range of areas where concrete, timely and measurable positive changes need to be made for Inuit women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people to achieve substantive equality. The image from page 6 of that report illustrates the breadth of the work that needs to be done, how we in FASD prevention can align our actions.

Harriet Visitor, an Indigenous educator and niece of Chanie Wendak, used the expression “learning to understand” on the radio this past week. She describes this as different than simply learning, it involves unlearning, not turning a blind eye, and acting. In the case of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, it involves supporting decolonization and revitalization of Indigenous culture and doing everything in our power to ensure the future is one where Indigenous women can thrive as leaders, teachers and healers, and be acknowledged and honoured for their expertise, agency and wisdom.

Resources:

Preconception Care to Optimize Health

Harm reduction and health promotion for women and their partners before conception are key to FASD prevention [1]. Providing health information and supports during the preconception period provides an opportunity for men and women to actively plan for a healthy pregnancy and learn strategies such as healthy nutrition, supplementation, and reducing alcohol and other substance use [2]. Such education and support can contribute greatly to optimizing health and preventing FASD [3].

Around the world, there are examples of unique approaches to preventing alcohol exposed pregnancies. Some interventions are geared towards women and men separately, and others are gender synchronized, creating complimentary programs for men, women, boys, and girls. Interventions may also include both members of a couple and include training for healthcare professionals.

Credit: Pretestie Bestie campaign.

Websites, such as Healthy Families BC and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada have pages offer information about alcohol use during pregnancy and clear and concise steps to consider before becoming pregnant. The recent ThinkFASD website sponsored by the CanFASD Research Network offers advice both for couples who are consciously planning a pregnancy, and those who are drinking and having unprotected sex. Other websites are interactive, such as Alberta Health Services’ Ready or Not, which allows a woman to click through different resources and prompts based on whether or not she feels ready to become pregnant. Don’t Know? Don’t Drink is a creative campaign in New Zealand, which posts fun, engaging graphics and videos to their social media platforms with messages about using contraception and supporting friends to not drink if there’s a chance they might be pregnant. The campaign caters to younger girls and encourages finding a “Pretestie Bestie”, a friend who supports you and your decision making before getting a pregnancy test, as a strategy of FASD prevention.

Interventions in the preconception period are not limited to women. Paternal drinking can impact men’s safety, sperm health, fetal/infant health, and women’s ability to reduce their alcohol use [4]. Various programs have been geared towards men’s education about contraception options, reproductive health, and how to support partners in their efforts to reduce drinking before and during pregnancy. Project Alpha is an American collaboration aimed at educating boys age 12 to 15 about fatherhood, contraception, healthy relationships, and sexuality.

MenCare+ empowers men to be active and positive participants in their own health as well as the health of their partners and children.  It has been implemented in Brazil, Indonesia, Rwanda, and South Africa and has been shown to reduce intimate partner violence in its participants, which is an important contributing factor to women’s substance use during pregnancy [5]. In addition to programming for men, MenCare also offers workshops and training for healthcare professionals on engaging men in maternal and child health.

The internet has been a preferred source of information when it comes to preconception [6] and for couples who know they want to have children, web-based interventions are helpful tools. The UK’s Smarter Pregnancy program helps couples build a profile through an online health assessment and then offers evidence-based recommendations based on their profile. A similar approach is taken by HealthyMoms and HealthyDads complimentary websites, which were created after asking expectant moms and dads what  information and supports they need to prepare for parenthood.

Culturally safe and non-judgemental interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of alcohol exposed pregnancies [7]. In the US, CHOICES and Amor Y Salud are interventions geared towards Indigenous and Latinx communities. CHOICES educates non-pregnant at-risk women about contraceptive options and uses motivational interviewing to support women to reduce drinking. Amor Y Salud, available through the Oregon Health Authority Website, offers a radionovela that follows a young couple as they learn how to optimize their health and prepare for future children. In Canada, Best Start’s website has a page for Indigenous prenatal health with information and resources that integrates Indigenous knowledge with Western health information. They also provide resources, such as Planning for Change, to support healthcare providers in educating their patients about FASD and supporting them in making meaningful changes.

The variety of preconception education and support approaches illustrates opportunities for incorporating these initiatives across the various levels of reproductive health. Childbearing years span four decades for women and are longer for men, and interventions have and can continue to focus on those that are planning or not yet planning a pregnancy, as well as for those in the period before a pregnancy is confirmed. When such preconception and early pregnancy supports are well incorporated throughout the healthcare system, this key component of FASD prevention can be realized.

1. Network Action Team on FASD Prevention. (2010). Consensus on 10 fundamental components of FASD prevention from a women’s health determinants perspective. Canada Northwest FASD Research Network.

2. The Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. (2016). Preconception Interventions Alcohol and Contraception Example. Schmidt, R., Hemsing, N., & Poole, N. Retrieved from http://en.beststart.org/sites/en.beststart.org/files/u4/PC3-Preconception-Interventions-Poole.pdf

3. Webb, Shelby, and Diane Foley. “An Introduction to the Optimal Health Model for Family Planning Clinicians.” National Clinical Training Center for Family Planning, 17 Feb. 2020, http://www.ctcfp.org/optimal-health-podcast/.

4. McBride, N. and S. Johnson, Fathers’ role in alcohol-exposed pregnancies: Systematic review of human studies. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2016

5. Alhusen JL, Ray E, Sharps P, Bullock L. Intimate partner violence during pregnancy: maternal and neonatal outcomes. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2015 Jan;24(1):100-6. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2014.4872. Epub 2014 Sep 29. PMID: 25265285; PMCID: PMC4361157.

6. Da Costa D, Zelkowitz P, Bailey K, Cruz R, Bernard JC, Dasgupta K, Lowensteyn I, Khalifé S. Results of a Needs Assessment to Guide the Development of a Website to Enhance Emotional Wellness and Healthy Behaviors During Pregnancy. J Perinat Educ. 2015;24(4):213-24. doi: 10.1891/1058-1243.24.4.213. PMID: 26834443; PMCID: PMC4718007.

7. Hanson, J., & Pourier, S. (2015). The Oglala Sioux Tribe CHOICES Program: Modifying an Existing Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancy Intervention for Use in an American Indian Community. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(1), 1. doi:10.3390/ijerph13010001


Preventing FASD and Intimate Partner Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Twenty years ago, Astley, Bailey, Talbot, and Clarren (2000) [1] published a study that revealed how common intimate partner violence (IPV) was amongst mothers of children with FASD. The study showed the importance of thinking broadly about the risk factors and influences of FASD and demonstrated that preventing violence against women is also a preventative measure for FASD. Research efforts since Astley et al.’s study in 2000 have continued to show that IPV is an important factor to consider when supporting pregnant women who use alcohol and other substances [2].

This year, researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health (CEWH) have been conducting a rapid review to understand the complex, multi-directional relationship between IPV and substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide available and accessible research evidence to frontline providers [3]. Since the implementation of stay at home orders and social distancing recommendations, use of substances and experiences of IPV have increased. Canadians have reported an 18% increase in alcohol consumption[5] due to the stress, boredom, and lack of a regular schedule brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic[6]. One in 10 Canadian women are concerned for their safety[4] and calls to the Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver have tripled, demonstrating an increase in help seeking by women. These findings highlight the importance of understanding how public health policies and recommendations that help curb the spread of COVID-19 can be used by partners who cause harm in coercive and controlling ways.

In our efforts to prevent and reduce substance use during pregnancy, collaboration among service providers in substance use and IPV services is essential. Understanding the interconnectedness of these issues and how they are affected by pandemics and disasters can help us address them collectively. As examples, the Learning Network at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children [7] and Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter [8] have developed educational materials to help us understand how to support women who are experiencing IPV during the ongoing pandemic. As we deepen our understanding of the risk factors for FASD to include psychosocial factors such as IPV, materials like these can help us incorporate holistic support into service provisions and better support women who are experiencing violence and aggression during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Excerpt from the Learning Network at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children’s 3 Considerations for Supporting Women Experiencing
Intimate Partner Violence During the
COVID-19 Pandemic
guide

  1. Astley, S. J., Bailey, D., Talbot, C., & Clarren, S. K. (2000). Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) primary prevention through fas diagnosis: II. A comprehensive profile of 80 birth mothers of children with FAS. Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire)35(5), 509–519. https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/35.5.509
  2. https://bccewh.bc.ca/?s=FASD+revention%3A+An+Annotated+Bibliography+of+Articles
  3. https://bccewh.bc.ca/featured-projects/covid-19-substance-use-and-intimate-partner-violence/
  4. Statistics Canada, Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: Impacts of COVID-19. 2020, Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada.
  5. NANOS Research, COVID-19 and Increased Alcohol Consumption: NANOS Poll Summary Report. 2020.
  6. Statistics Canada. Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: Impacts of COVID-19. 2020; Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200408/dq200408c-eng.htm
  7. http://vawlearningnetwork.ca/our-work/infographics/covid19safety/LN-Safety-COVID-19-PDF-1.pdf
  8. https://www.calgarywomensshelter.com/images/CWES_COVIDsupport_Final_April_2020.pdf

#FASD is a woman’s health issue

FASD Awareness Day started on September 9, 1999 to bring global awareness to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

FASD Month Campaign-07This year, Canada FASD Research Network (CanFASD) is launching FASD Awareness Month for all of September. The goal is to bring awareness to what FASD is and challenge the stigma and misinformation surrounding the disability. In preparation, they have released a toolkit with information about FASD, speech-writing tips, and images that are strengths-based, non-judgemental, and person-centered as to reduce the stigma around FASD, alcohol, and pregnancy.

CanFASD’s campaign explores how FASD is many things; including a women’s health issue. Preventing FASD requires supporting women in addressing the issues that contribute to their substance use and experience of trauma. When women receive non-judgemental support that is tangible and offers practical help, women are able to reduce or abstain from substance use, improve their health, and be empowered mothers.

Positioning FASD as a woman’s health issue recognizes:

FASD Month Campaign-05

  • Communities’ roles in healthy pregnancies;
  • Service providers’ role in delivering services that women need (i.e. housing, employment, nutrition, anti-violence, substance use) in an accessible and non-judgemental way;
  • Governmental roles in creating evidence based alcohol policy, and addictions & child welfare policies that prioritize wrapping support around the mother-child unit; and,
  • Society’s role in learning more about alcohol use in pregnancy and FASD.

Addressing Stigma – Acting Collaboratively

Key challenges in FASD prevention are the stigma directed to pregnant women and new mothers who use alcohol and other substances, and the fear of having children removed from mothers’ care if they report their use and/or seek help.  A new resource, in toolkit format,  Mothering and Opioids: Addressing Stigma – Acting Collaboratively addresses these long standing dilemmas for women and for service providers.

This toolkit provides tools, worksheets, and factsheets to aid substance use and child welfare workers in building capacity to offer mother-child centred, trauma informed, culturally safe, and harm reduction-oriented services and policies. The toolkit’s four sections each address a specific area or need in service delivery and provision:

  1. Addressing Stigma in Practice

The first section examines how women who use opioids experience stigma and includes tools for assessing potentially stigmatizing practices. This section also includes a script for responding constructively to coworkers’ stigmatizing behaviour arising from the work of Lenora Marcellus and Betty Poag, as well as a factsheet entitled “10 Things Pregnant and Parenting Women Who Use Substances Would Like Practitioners to Know” created by women with lived experience accessing services at HerWay Home in Victoria BC.

  1. Improving Programming and Services

The second section describes how stigma relates to the barriers that women face. It identifies promising practice and policy responses that address stigma and health, substance use, and child protection concerns. Tools are provided to facilitate integrating promising approaches into our responses, and to identify ways in which barriers can be overcome. It honours and advances the differing roles of substance use services and child welfare services in supporting women and children, as well as evidence informed shared approaches (See diagram from page 21)

M+O

  1. Cross System Collaboration and Joint Action

The third section includes information and tools to facilitate cross-system collaboration. Collaboration between the child welfare and substance use fields provides an opportunity to improve child safety and support the recovery of parents. Cohesive working relationships between these sectors can foster advocacy, consultation, system navigation, safety planning, and streamlined referrals. In this, as in all sections there are resources that focus on Indigenous approaches to child welfare and substance use.

  1. Policy Values

The final section discusses policy matters, and how defining and affirming policy values can clarify our work in both systems of care. This section emphasizes viewing mothers and children as a unit when developing policy and programming to facilitate the goal of keeping mothers and children together.

Researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health worked with other researchers, service providers and women with lived experience to create a practical and forward looking resource designed to inspire self-reflection and action, to promote an immediate impact on current policy and practice. The tools are designed to help us continue to build on our capabilities to make mothers’ needs and voices central in our work, and to offer mother-child centred, trauma informed, culturally safe and harm reduction-oriented services and policies related to women’s use of alcohol, opioids and all other substances.

More evidence that judging pregnant women’s behaviour is counterproductive

A few of our Prevention Network (pNAT) members recently spotted an online article entitled “Demonising smoking and drinking in pregnancy may lead women to do it in private, says study.” Read the online article about the study here.

This study from the University of Cardiff in Wales has confirmed what most women’s health advocates know – that judging pregnant women for behaviours that may negatively affect fetal and child health, did not cause them to stop, but instead caused them avoid public and professional scrutiny, and to use in private. Women felt judged by healthcare professionals for their smoking and poverty, which made interactions with health care providers awkward. (See journal article on the study here.)

In the research 10 low-income, pregnant women in Wales were asked to “tell their stories” including how pregnancy affects their everyday life. Although smoking was discussed extensively by the women, interviewers did not raise the topic during the interviews. As part of their stories, women described their smoking behaviours, and reactions from the public, family, friends, and health care providers.

  

Liberation: Helping Women Quit Smoking
  
Doorways to Conversation

This study underscores what we know about substance use prevention in general – shame and stigma are not solutions to helping people change use, and specifically that the judgement of health professionals is tied to not accessing the support that is needed and deserved. In that way, the professionals become part of the problem instead of the solution. Evidence has established that using non-judgmental approaches are key to supporting behaviour change. These approaches emphasise harm reduction and employ collaborative and empathic conversations that respect individuals’ self determination and understand the underlying issues of substance use problems. Further to collaborative conversations, it is critical to understand substance use, and challenges to change substance use, as related to the burdens of violence and poverty faced by women – this forces us to move beyond a focus on individual behaviour and instead to action for social justice on these conditions of women’s lives.

Collaborative Approaches for Health Care Professionals
Indigenous Approaches to FASD Prevention
Mothercraft Study: “A Focus on Relationships”

The pNAT has written extensively about the importance of non-judgmental Level 2 discussions with women and their partners about alcohol, other substance use and the determinants of health that affect use. Included here are some resources that can help practitioners to engage in those discussions with women in a way that builds connection and relationship and supports movement toward positive change in alcohol and tobacco use, and related health and social concerns. As well, practitioners can connect to local pregnancy and addictions support programs to learn what community action to address stigma and promote social justice is underway.

References

Weinberger, A. H., Platt, J., Esan, H., Galea, S., Erlich, D., & Goodwin, R. D. (2017). Cigarette Smoking is Associated with Increased Risk of Substance Use Disorder Relapse: A Nationally Representative, Prospective Longitudinal Investigation. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 78(2), e152-e160.

See earlier posts

LINKING CANNABIS USE WITH ALCOHOL AND TOBACCO November 13, 2018
NEW RESOURCES FOR COLLABORATIVE CONVERSATIONS ON SUBSTANCE USE WITH GIRLS AND WOMEN June 18, 2018
REACHING AND ENGAGING WOMEN: WHAT WORKS AND WHAT’S NEEDED May 15, 2017
TARGETING STIGMA AND FASD IN MANITOBA June 26, 2017
ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES AND ALCOHOL USE DURING PREGNANCY August 18, 2015
BRIEF INTERVENTIONS TO DECREASE ALCOHOL MISUSE IN WOMEN November 26, 2013
LET’S START A CONVERSATION ABOUT HEALTH . . . AND NOT TALK ABOUT HEALTH CARE AT ALL June 23, 2011

Linking cannabis use with alcohol and tobacco

Because alcohol and tobacco have long been legal substances, there is a lot of evidence about their use during the preconception, pregnancy and perinatal periods. With the legalization of cannabis in Canada, new research on cannabis use may begin to fill the existing evidence gaps and better define its risks.

Because of its illegal status, women may have been reluctant to report using cannabis during pregnancy unless it was being used medically, and research ethics may have prohibited its study. Consequently, much of what we know about cannabis use in pregnancy has come from data gathered during studies on alcohol and tobacco. That is why it now makes sense to link the work of all three substances.

For instance, research shows that women who use cannabis during pregnancy are more likely to smoke cigarettes and use alcohol.1 As well, co-use of tobacco and cannabis is associated small head circumference and may increase other birth defects (cardio, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal) compared to no-use and single-use groups.2 This finding of association should be interpreted with some caution based on the number of limitations of the study. Still, it does underscore the need for more robust research in order to understand the association.

Researching all three substances allows for understanding the “clustering of risks” and the interactions between those risks in a way that targeting individual substances cannot do.3 By looking at the clustering of risk as described by researchers, holistic prevention efforts can target social determinants of health that affect poly-substance use.

Linking the findings on the three substances allows researchers to parse out the differences among those who use substances in pregnancy, and the clusters of risk for the substances they use. That will help to further prevention efforts in messaging, discussing substance use with women and their partners, and supporting women with holistic and safe approaches.

References

1. Ko, J.Y., Tong, V.T., Bombard, J.M., Hayes, D.K., Davy, J., & Perham-Hester, K.A. (2018). Marijuana use during and after pregnancy and association of prenatal use on birth outcomes: A population-based study. Drug and alcohol dependence, 187, 72-78.
2. Coleman-Cowger, V.H., Oga, E.A., Peters, E.N., & Mark, K. (2018). Prevalence and associated birth outcomes of co-use of Cannabis and tobacco cigarettes during pregnancy. Neurotoxicology and teratology, 68, 84-90.
3. Passey, Megan E. et al. (2014). Tobacco, alcohol and cannabis use during pregnancy: Clustering of risks. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, Volume 134, 44–50. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376871613003700#bib0185

For more on these topics, see earlier posts:

DISCUSSING ALCOHOL USE WITH WOMEN – DOES THE SBIR MODEL NEED REARRANGING? October 4, 2017
ALCOHOL, COCAINE, MARIJUANA, AND CIGARETTE USE DURING PREGNANCY: LOOKING AT RELATIVE HARMS March 17, 2014

Youth understanding of substance use and pregnancy

With marketing of alcohol and nicotine delivery products to youth, legalization of cannabis, and the crisis in prescription pain medication use, there are new opportunities to have conversations with youth about substance use and pregnancy, with the aim of reducing the harms and improving their overall health.

What do we know about youth understanding of substance use and pregnancy?

Existing research and data on youth behaviour provide a window.

One U.S. study showed a relationship between pregnancy and prior substance use among adolescents, and among younger adolescents in particular.

  • 59% of pregnant teens and 35% of nonpregnant teens reported having used substances in the previous 12 months.
  • Some substance use continued in pregnancy particularly among younger pregnant adolescents ages 12-14. (1)

The McCreary Centre Society conducts an adolescent health survey in BC every 5 years. The 2018 evaluation is underway, but findings from 2013 indicated a number of factors related to youth substance use and pregnancy.

Those at higher risk for harmful alcohol use include:

  • Youth in rural areas
  • Youth who were born in Canada
  • Youth who were employed
  • Youth living in poverty
  • Youth experiencing abuse or violence
  • Sexual minority youth
  • Peer relationships have risks in terms of starting drinking earlier and binge drinking particularly when friend groups are large.

Those at greater risk of being involved in a pregnancy include:

  • Youth who first had sex before their 14th birthday
  • Youth in rural areas
  • Youth who had been in government care. Among these youth, girls were more likely than boys to be have been involved in a pregnancy
  • Youth who had been physically abused
  • Youth who had been sexually abused. Among these youth, males who were more likely to have been involved in a pregnancy.

The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) from 2017 shows that:

  • 17% of youth have participated in binge drinking and 16% cannot remember what happened during that time
  • Boys are more likely to use e-cigarettes and all forms of tobacco, over-the-counter cold/cough medications, energy drinks, cannabis, and psychedelics
  • Girls are more likely to use prescription opioids for pain relief and tranquilizers medically

IMPART info sheet on “Youth, Gender and Substance Use” recaps how the harms of early substance use are gender-specific.

How do we approach building awareness and prevention?

Opening “Doorways to Conversation” about substance use and pregnancy allows for brief interventions and support for youth as well as women and girls. Many providers think that they need to have appropriately tested screening tools along with the knowledge, skills and confidence to conduct them. As one United Nations study found, less than 30% of health providers routinely screened youth for substance use for these reasons.(2)

Trauma-informed, culturally relevant, and gender-specific relational approaches build trusting relationships that can support youth who may be dealing with more complex issues like violence and abuse, gender identity, or the foster care system.

Promising Approaches for Reaching Youth on Substance Use and Pregnancy

Here are some current promising approaches to improving youth understanding of substance use and pregnancy in Canada.

Projects like “Let’s Get Real About Drinking Alcohol” are trainings for youth focusing on the interconnection of substance use, safe sex, birth control, and drinking during pregnancy. You can view a webcast about the project here.
This handout offers conversation starters on substance use for group facilitators. Girls Action Foundation “Take Care” program provides a curriculum and resources for facilitators of girls’ groups to promote critical thinking about healthy living including substance use and sexuality.
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) has created a low-risk drinking guide for youth.

Online sexual health resources for youth:

Teen Health Source Native Youth Sexual Health Network

  1. Christopher P. Salas-Wright, Michael G. Vaughn, Jenny Ugalde, Jelena Todic. Substance Use and Teen Pregnancy in the United States: Evidence from the NSDUH 2002–2012. Addictive Behaviors, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2015.01.039
  2. Chakravarthy, B., Shah, S., & Lotfipour, S. (2013). Adolescent drug abuse – Awareness & prevention. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 137(6), 1021–1023.