How does smoking affect women's health?

BY Liz Hodgkinson

7th Jul 2023 Wellbeing

How does smoking affect women's health?
Smoking has particular impacts on women's health, says this 1992 piece from our archive. We ask the experts how smoking affects women, and how to finally quit
For several months Carol Mitchell, an oil company executive from Essex, suffered from a painful cough, shortness of breath and a drooping eyelid. In April 1988 her doctor sent her to the Harlow Princess Alexandra Hospital for investigation. Tests revealed that she had inoperable lung cancer.
Carol had started smoking at 15 "because it made me feel grown up."
After her marriage, her husband Bill nagged her to give up her 20-a-day habit. "If she'd been able to stop smoking," he says, "she would have been absolutely perfect."
But Carol's reaction was: "I don't mind what price I pay—I enjoy smoking."
It was a high price. Carol died only 16 weeks after the diagnosis of lung cancer was confirmed. She was just 39.

The smoking epidemic for women

Women who smoke are more likely to develop cervical cancer, bronchitis and wrinkling
The young woman who dies' prematurely of lung cancer has become an all too familiar tragedy in the UK. According to the Health Education Authority, 10,127 women died of smoking-related lung cancer in 1989, and the toll is rising.
Dr Robin Rudd, consultant physician at the London Chest Hospital, is alarmed that so many women seem unaware of the dangers of smoking. "They don't appear to take any notice of the glaring statistics."
Every five minutes, someone in the UK dies from a smoking-related disease. The figures should alarm everyone, but the statistics are particularly frightening for women.
Between 1974 and 1990, the number of women in the UK dying from lung cancer rose by 61 per cent. During the same period the figure for men decreased by ten per cent. In Scotland, lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death for women, having overtaken breast cancer in 1985.
"Between 1974 and 1990, the number of women in the UK dying from lung cancer rose by 61 per cent"
But smoking doesn't cause only lung cancer. According to a 1990 report, women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as non-smokers.
Women who smoke are also twice as likely to suffer heart disease as non-smokers; women over 35 who smoke more than 15 cigarettes a day and are on the pill are ten times more likely to suffer from heart disease.
And Dr Jean Golding, of the University of Bristol, has found that bronchitis, emphysema, peptic ulcers and facial wrinkling are all more common among women who smoke.
Smoking while pregnant makes childhood cancers more likely for your baby
Pregnancy presents special problems. In general, women smokers take longer to conceive and have babies' below normal birth-weight. Smoking during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and cot death.
Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that babies born to women smokers are twice as likely to develop childhood cancers as those born to non-smokers. Says Dr Golding: "Many women have no idea that by smoking they are literally threatening their baby's life."
With all this evidence to support the particular dangers faced by women smokers, why don't they take any notice? Consider these statistics from the 1989 Office of Population, Census and Surveys:
  • Girls and women aged 16-25 are now more likely to smoke than their male counterparts. In the 16-19 age group this difference is particularly marked: 32 per cent of girls smoke, as opposed to 28 per cent of boys.
  • Between 1972 and 1988, the number of men smokers dropped by 19 per cent; women smokers by only 11 per cent.
Public health officials find these figures perplexing. Women have always seemed to show a greater interest in their health than men. Why have the sexes switched attitudes about the use of tobacco? Recent studies suggest that there are several reasons for this.

Ignorance of the dangers

Many women cling to the belief that men are more vulnerable to tobacco-related illness. As recently as 1991 a British survey conducted by Gallup revealed that 32 per cent of all women (and 80 per cent of teenage mothers) still smoke during pregnancy.
Researchers have found that some pregnant smokers are unaware that smoking is associated with miscarriage and stillbirth, and 30 per cent of women don't know the increased risk of heart attack that goes with smoking while taking oral contraceptives.

Fear of gaining weight

Today's society exerts tremendous pressure on women to be slim. Psychologist Bonnie Spring of Chicago Medical School reports that women who stop smoking put on an average of eight pounds in weight. The fear of getting fat causes many women to continue smoking.
One theory for this weight gain is that food tastes better to a palate unfogged by smoke, leading women to eat more. In addition, there is a slowing of the body's metabolism after nicotine withdrawal. But the link between giving up smoking and gaining weight is more complex than that.
"The fear of getting fat causes many women to continue smoking"
Bonnie Spring's 1991 findings demonstrated a chemical link between withdrawal from nicotine and increased carbohydrate intake.
While nicotine usually stimulates the production of the chemical serotonin, which induces feelings of wellbeing, the person who attempts to stop smoking suffers from lack of serotonin.
Increasing carbohydrate intake by snacking can keep serotonin production up. Most ex-smokers consume about 300 extra calories a day for at least a month after giving up, Bonnie Spring claims.

Psychological need

Women who suffer from anxiety, depression or stress often use cigarettes to relax (evidence suggests that men are more likely to smoke for pleasure or to relieve boredom.)
Women who use smoking as an emotional crutch find it particularly difficult to give up. Women also seem to experience more severe withdrawal symptoms than men.

Advertising lures

Tobacco companies make sure their product is associated with "luxury, slimness and length," according to anti-smoking campaigner Amanda Amos.
"In theory, the advertisements are describing cigarettes, but by association, women smokers can see themselves as long, slender and sophisticated."
Many style magazines aimed at teenagers carry advertisiments for cigarettes—still associated among young people with glamour and soph- istication.
"I bought my first packet of cigarettes, lit one and posed in front of the mirror," says one 16-year-old girl. "I liked what I saw and I've been smoking ever since."

How to prepare to stop smoking

To quit smoking, avoid old triggers like alcohol and coffee
The numbers of women who give up smoking may be disappointing, but it can be done. Here are some tactics to help you succeed:

1. Recognise withdrawal symptoms and learn how to cope with them

You're likely to suffer from some or all of the following symptoms: tobacco craving, tension, anxiety, inability to concentrate, headaches, tiredness and sleeplessness.
For most people, though, the symptoms diminish after the first week and are virtually gone by the second or third. Remember also that the craving, intense as it may seem, lasts for only two or three minutes at most, then recedes.
To ease withdrawal symptoms, relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, warm baths or exercise may help.

2. Face the fear of weight gain

By carefully monitoring food intake, many women manage to control their weight. But if you find it impossible to sacrifice both cigarettes and cream cakes, then postpone dieting.
Advises Amanda Amos: "Even if you do gain a bit of weight, the health dangers are far less than if you continued to smoke. You can always start dieting or increase exercise once you've really kicked the habit."

3. Avoid associated habits

Don't linger at the dining table—one of the most tempting times to smoke. Go for a brisk walk instead.
If a cup of coffee and a cigarette have become inseparable, try switching to tea or a soft drink. Avoid places where people habitually smoke, such as pubs.
Alcohol is a particular danger; its disinhibiting effects may weaken your resolve.
"Alcohol is a particular danger; its disinhibiting effects may weaken your resolve"
The ideal beverage says Dr Chris Steele, founder of two stop-smoking clinics in Manchester, is water. "Drink as much as eight glasses a day," he advises.
"Having something to occupy your mouth and hands reduces the craving to smoke. Fresh fruit juice is good for breaking down impurities in the body. As a recent ex-smoker, you'll have plenty of those!"

4. Enlist the support of others

Women have a higher success rate in giving up cigarettes if they don't try to go it alone.
Team up with a friend who also wants to stop smoking, or join a self-help group. Sharing your problem with others will strengthen your commitment.

5. Beware of overconfidence

If you are buoyed up by several months of abstinence, you may feel that "there's no harm in just one." You're fooling yourself. One "harmless" cigarette may rekindle your craving. Smoking is at least as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
Act as if your life depended on stopping. It does.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in [December 1994]. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently
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