HEALTH chiefs said they were working ‘extremely hard’ to persuade pregnant women to give up cigarettes, despite figures showing almost one in five continue to smoke.

The proportion of women smoking during pregnancy in Pennine Lancashire has remained largely unchanged over the past five years.

The latest figures, collected in March 2013, showed 19 per cent of expectant mums were smoking in the East Lancashire NHS area, which matched the figure collected in 2008.

Greater progress has been made in Blackburn with Darwen, which recorded a figure of 17 per cent last year, compared to 21 per cent in 2008. However, both areas were well above the national average of 13 per cent.

The statistics are seen as extremely concerning by health officials, but are not considered surprising, given people living in the most deprived boroughs are twice as likely to smoke as those in the wealthiest.

Asked whether more should have been done to tackle the issue, Pam Barton, Hyndburn Council’s cabinet member for health, said: “I think all the agencies are working extremely hard to get the right messages across. If you go into any Sure Start Centre or GP surgery you’ll see leaflets and posters on this, and I think we just need to keep plugging away at it.”

Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, director of public health at Lancashire County Council, said: "It's important we do all we can to ensure children and young people across Lancashire stay healthy and that they get a good start in life (and) we are running a campaign to encourage them to quit.

"We've also run general 'stop smoking' campaigns and encouraged people to sign a pledge to keep their homes smoke-free. This is a scheme run through children's centres throughout Lancashire.”

According to experts, stopping smoking will have an immediate beneficial effect for expectant mums, clearing carbon monoxide and chemicals from the body and returning oxygen levels to normal.

It will also ease morning sickness and result in fewer complications in pregnancy, reduce the risk of stillbirth, help women cope better with the birth or complications and mean the baby is less likely to be born too early and face additional breathing, feeding and health problems.

Pregnant mothers and anyone wanting to stop smoking can call the East Lancashire Quit Squad on 0800 328 6297.