JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - According to the Arkansas Department of Health's latest birth data, northeast Arkansas has the highest percentage of smoking pregnant women at 18.5 percent.
Poinsett, Sharp and Jackson counties have the highest rates of smoking expectant mothers in the region at about 30 percent.
Smoking is one of the leading causes of birth defects. They affect 1,300 Arkansas babies every year, and more than 100 will die because of them.
One mother said this was enough to kick her bad habit.
"I actually quit the day I found out I was pregnant with my son," Melinda Rice said. "I don't really think you cannot not quit."
Rice said she knew the risks with smoking and did not want to take any chances.
"It can cause problems like smaller birth weight," Rice said. "My son was smaller when he was born anyway just because that's the history in our family. I always wondered if I wouldn't have quit smoking, 'How little would he have been? And what other challenges could he have had breathing and things?'"
But since Rice kicked her habit, her baby boy was born healthy.
"Full term, running around, just normal. He crawled, walked, everything normal like every other kid did," Rice said.
Since then, Rice has never picked up a cigarette.
"I figured if I could go nine months, I could go the rest of my life," Rice said.
"I wish all the patients could be like that. So kudos to her. That's great," Dr. Shane Speights with St. Bernards said.
Dr. Speights sees patients all the time who have smoking-related problems during their pregnancies. He said the biggest issue is what the nicotine does to the baby's body.
Nicotine decreases the amount of blood and oxygen that goes to the baby, which makes it grow smaller. This leads to the birth defects.
"Low birth weight, early deliveries, cleft lip, cleft palate, these are big problems that can occur during the pregnancy that can be avoided if they just stop smoking," Speights said.
The latest birth data supports this. In the three counties with the highest pregnant and smoking rates, the premature birth rates were also high, averaging 11 percent.
Dr. Speights said the baby could even appear healthy when born, but develop health issues later.
"SIDS is higher in families that smoke so smokers that deliver babies have a higher incident of SIDS," Speights said.
Dr. Speights said there is a key to all of this: don't smoke.
"It may not be easy, but at the end of the day, it's the best thing for that unborn child and that new, little life that's growing inside of you," Speights said.
"I never regretted at all not picking up and starting again, or stopping when I did. I probably should have stopped sooner, but I'm glad, at least, I stopped then," Rice said.