THE smoking rate for pregnant Irish women is three times higher than among mothers-to-be in Boston in the US, an area of comparable size.
The problem is heightened by the "disgraceful" lack of services here to help them quit, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children was told.
Prof Luke Clancy of the Tobacco Free Research Institute said he is the only respiratory physician in the country who runs a smoking cessation clinic, yet addiction to smoking should be regarded as a disease.
"Smoking in pregnancy is a serious problem in this country, yet there are no proper services (for quitters). Is a nicotine replacement patch safe? Probably not – but there is no comparison and it is at least 100 times safer than smoking."
The committee is hearing from all interest groups in advance of the Government bringing in plain packaging for cigarette packets.
Joe Sweeney, President of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents in Ireland, said it is "offensive to me and other retailers that there is an incorrect and arrogant assumption that their questioning of the proposals is somehow a defence of the tobacco industry".
He told the committee: "We are trying to protect our own business interests, and while the product remains legal we expect to be recognised as responsible retailers who are competing with a criminal underworld."
His organisation "contests and disputes" the sentiment that plain packaging would reduce the appeal of tobacco and tobacco products, as they are not on display here due to the display ban.
"It is difficult to understand how the appeal of a brand can attract a smoker, when the product is not visible to him or her and the impulse purchase that might have been prompted by the sight of a product does not occur.
"There is no hard evidence to suggest that oversized health warnings or plain packaging will reduce the amount of people currently smoking or those who start to smoke."
He added: "Some organisations you have heard from, dismiss our contention that plain packaging will lead to increased illicit trade. If that is so, how do they explain the surge in illicit tobacco sales in Australia in the year since plain packaging was introduced there?"
Regulation from Europe will give the Department of Health all of the powers needed to tackle cigarette packaging. It will bring in measures such as 65pc of cigarette packets being given over to health warnings.