Transcript for Crack Baby Myth - Ira Chasnoff

Narrator: So, we're talking about lies that last in this hour. Myths that hang around for years, decades, even after they've been proved false. So, how do these things get started in the first place? Well, let's take the case of the crack babies... Unknown Reporter: In the United States this year, at least a hundred thousand crack babies will be born. Today, the government said it will cost five billion dollars a year to care for such babies and money doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Unknown Reporter: Drugs take away the dream from every child's heart and replace it with a nightmare. Unknown Reporter: Within days, we were getting calls from media all over the country. Unknown Reporter: They tend to be what we call "jittery" Unknown Reporter: They're at very very high risk for cerebral polsy, mental retardation... Unknown Reporter: They are prone to hyper-tension, strokes, and sudden infant death syndrome. These children, who are the most expensive babies ever born in America, are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come into contact with throughout the rest of their lives. Steve Paulson: That was 60 Minutes' Dan Rather and Peter Jennings reporting in 1985. While the first long-term study of the effect of crack cocaine on babies in the womb has just come out and it says that those crack babies were a myth. Steve Paulson kinda found that hard to believe so he tracked down Dr. Irat Chaznov. He's a professor of pediatric medicine at the University of Illinois. Dr. Chaznov was one of the go-to medical experts on crack babies back in the 1980's. When the story exploded in the national media, he was part of it. Dr. Irat Chaznov: Well, we started seeing this in the media and it was an interesting experience with interviews. People would ask questions and we would answer them and this happened not just to me but to many other researchers that we would answer questions and then we would see the answers, just little snippets of it, and began to realize that this was getting out of control, and then it was quite disappointing when we published our data at two and three years and showed that IQ global develompental scores were normal. We saw a swing in the media the other way that was declaring there is nothing wrong with using cocaine during pregnancy and that was absolutely not a message that we wanted going out to the public, and so kept seeing these fluctuations from one extreme to another when what we were trying to do through research, is bring it to the middle and bring some common sense to understanding what the real issues were. Steve Paulson: Well, let's bring the story closer to the present then. Dr. Halem Hurt, who back published decades ago was chair of neonatology at Philadelphia's Albert Einstein Medical Center. She launched a study into the long-term effects crack had on children exposed to the drug in the womb and almost a quarter of a century after beginning her research, Dr. Hurt now says America's rampant fears about crack babies were in her words 'unwarranted - crack babies are now considered a myth.' Do you agree? Dr. Irat Chaznov: Well, sure. The whole idea that was painted in the media certainly did not have any truth to it then and it doesn't have any truth to it now. So, was it a myth? Is it a myth that cocaine has effects on pregnancy and newborn outcome? No, it is not a myth. Is it a myth that crack babies were doomed to lives of these terrible lives? No, that's not - that part of the myth is not true at all. On the other hand, alcohol certainly has been shown to cause significant risk for intellectual disabilities. Steve Paulson: So, you're saying actually alcohol taken when a mother is pregnant has far bigger risk than cocaine. Dr. Irat Chaznov: You can look at it from multiple directions just from the perspective of how many infants are exposed to alcohol vs. how many are exposed to cocaine. Alcohol overwhelmingly is used much more frequently. Does alcohol effect IQ? Yes, there are many studies that show that alcohol does effect again overall cognitive function, it effects IQ whereas cocaine does not. Steve Paulson: My sense is that in the popular media, what most of us believe to this day - there still is this sense that there are such things as crack babies and that's a real problem and there are all kinds of medical and even cognitive problems associated with babies born this way. That's kind of - that's out there in the air, still, isn't it? Dr. Irat Chaznov: I think it is. I think that we have a very short attention span in this country and we tend to go from one drug to the next as far as where our concern is focused. The reality is, it's a poly-drug environment. If a pregnant woman is using any of the drugs that you want to mention, she is most likely also using alcohol and/ or tobacco, and the question is how do you pull all of that apart, and that's where it comes down to a lot of the politics and the perceptions of society of what we want to believe and what we don't want to believe. Steve Paulson: So, I guess the question is, if we just want to focus on the so-called 'crack babies' for a moment, you've basically said there really is no such thing as a crack baby, i mean, that term was invented by the media; it does not come from medical literature but a lot of people still believe that and I guess the question is 'why, if this has been shown, more or less, to be a false belief?' Dr. Irat Chaznov: I think the reason people still try to use terms like crack baby is it's a very pejorative term. You know, we're a very verbal society so if you say circus, people have an image of three rings, lots of action, animals, clowns. If you say 'crack baby', the image invariably is one of black inner-city populations. Now, the reality is we know that's not true, but that's the image that's out there and that's why you continue to see people using that term and unfortunately what happens, is what should be a public health issue involves into a public law issue - it becomes a legal issue and that's when the legislators try to start passing laws about putting pregnant women in jail, taking babies away. It's a very reflexive kind of action based on perceptions of who these people are that use crack and the reality is the use of drugs and alcohol and tobacco goes across all social classes, all economic classes. We published an article in 1990 in the New England Journal of Medicine that addressed this issue because as we saw this so called 'crack baby frenzy' going on, we asked the question, 'who really - ok - who really is using drugs during pregnancy and what is the perception of physicians as to who is using drugs during pregnancy' and so we did a study and what we showed is that even though the use of drugs and alcohol were the same when we did blinded urine toxicologies in black and white women, physicians were ten times more likely to do a urine toxicology and report a woman to child welfare and have her baby taken away if she was black. Steve Paulson: In retrospect, as you look back on your own role in the way the story about crack babies developed, would you have done anything differently? Dr. Irat Chaznov: You know, at the time, I felt some responsibility for making sure that people understood that cocaine was not safe to use during pregnancy. It was a public health issue. We approached it as a public health perspective. I think that I would have been more aggressive in trying to set aside or correct some of the erroneous information that was getting out there. I think I could have been more aggressive in trying to correct some of the misinformation that was getting out there. Arat Jaznov - he's a professor of pediatric medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Steve Paulson talked with him.

Comments for this interview

Crack babies (Jessica Regus, 06/13/2014 - 3:45pm)

How can it possible be a myth! Iv seen far to much evidence of this with babies.

Addicted Newborns (Mary, 02/23/2014 - 11:12pm)

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a NICU in an inner-city hospital knows that addicted newborns (including crack babies) are born every day. Unless you've heard their incessant blood-curdling screams, seen their tremors, seen them vomiting, seen them unable to sleep, and given them morphine to ease their withdrawals until you ween them, you can't remotely imagine how bad they suffer. They spend weeks in the NICU, where their mothers often don't even visit them. Search on drug addicted newborns on YouTube.