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Are WIC participants using free benefits toward risky behaviors?

Research finds participants decreased prenatal alcohol consumption and increased postnatal smoking

A recent study from Texas A&M University creates a more accurate representation of how the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) impacts tobacco and alcohol consumption during and following pregnancy. Using data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, Benjamin Ukert, PhD, of the Texas A&M School of Public Health, and M. Taha Kasim, PhD, of Furman University found WIC enrollment had no effect on prenatal smoking, but did find that it increased postpartum cigarette consumption. They also found strong effects of WIC enrollment on prenatal alcohol consumption.

WIC was initially established in 1972 to improve the health of low-income mothers and children through vouchers for nutritional food, health counseling services and health care referrals. The more than 8 million WIC enrollees are eligible based on income as well as participation in Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Although studies have found that WIC participation increases the quantity and dietary diversity of foods, there remains the possibility of allocating the funds to support risky behaviors.

Ukert’s analysis focused on comparing WIC participants and WIC eligible women to create a more homogeneous comparison sample and found that the probability of alcohol use decreased by 1.2 percentage points (or a 22 percent decrease to the relative baseline drinking probability) during pregnancy. Postpartum smoking, however, did increase in WIC participants.

One well known limitation of the Medicaid program is that it ceases 60 days after delivery, leaving mothers with little access to care. This can help explain the possible postpartum anxiety that would drive smoking. It is also possible that smokers might have been able to only temporarily quit for the health of their baby and, possibly, perceive the effects of smoking to be much more severe in utero relative to secondhand exposure.

Though WIC provides many good services for mothers in need and women benefit from the education and resources available, the research findings indicate the program should allocate resources to target postpartum smoking behavior to promote the well-being of both the child and mother.

– by Laura Larocca

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays,, 979.436.0611

Rae Lynn Mitchell

SPH - Director of Communications and Alumni Affairs

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