Smoking and the Ongoing Threat to Women

Yesterday, an estimated 10 million Americans were expected to participate in the American Cancer Society’s annual Great American Smokeout. Women especially have been encouraged to participate given the rise in female deaths due to coronary artery disease and lung cancer. Lung cancer mortality rates have increased 600% from the 1950’s and since the 1980’s lung cancer has superceeded breast cancer as the number one cancer amongst women. Still, more women die of coronary artery disease annually than from all cancer deaths combined. Smoking is strongly linked to the development of heart disease and lung cancer in men and women and it increases the risk of stroke. Women, however, are also susceptible to nicotine’s effects in promoting osteoporosis and cervical cancer. Additionally, smoking reduces fertility and increases the risk of pregnancy complications such as low birth weight and premature birth. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22% of adult women and 26% of adult men currently smoke. Caucasian and African-American women smoke in fairly equal proportions (23% vs. 21%) while Native American women smoke at higher rates (38%). Hispanic and Asian women make up a much smaller proportion of the smokers (13% and 10% respectively). Not surprisingly, the incidence of smoking is inversely proportional to a woman’s level of education. The prevalence of smoking among girls and young women has risen dramatically over the past 10 years due to aggressive advertising campaigns. Themes of sophistication, thinness and empowerment dominate the tobacco industry’s massive and aggressive ad campaigns. In 1999 alone, companies spent more that $8 billion in advertising, a 22% increase from 1998.

Smoking is highly addictive and studies show that women have more difficulty quitting smoking than men. Studies also show that smokers generally try to quit smoking 9 times before succeeding. Most people need help to stop successfully and co-morbidities such as depression often are associated with smoking and must be fully explored and addressed for smoking cessation to be successful. The University of California at San Francisco recently reported this finding in their study of post-menopausal women who were highly addicted to smoking (i.e. had smoked for more than 40 years.) Researchers found that 57% of the 277 women studied were depressed. Anti-depressant medications have significantly impacted smoking cessation treatment. A study put out by GlaxoSmithKline plc, the company who markets the drug Zyban (the brand name for the equally effective generic drug Wellbutrin), recently published a study indicating that 7 weeks after taking the medication and receiving motivational counseling, 47% of the 629 “heavy-smoking patients” were able to stop smoking, compared to 19% of the placebo-control group. After 26 weeks of the study, the success rate fell to 27% for the Zyban group and 11 % in the placebo group. While helpful, the drug is not without side effects and it is not recommended for those with a history of seizures. The typical dose is 2 pills for 12 weeks and the daily cost for the medication is about the same as a pack of cigarettes.

Smoking is a highly addictive and dangerous habit. Women are uniquely being targeted by the tobacco industry and while like men, we are at increased risk for dying from heart disease or lung cancer, we are uniquely at risk for suffering from decreased fertility, pregnancy complications, cervical cancer and osteoporosis. While treatments exist to help people stop smoking, the national statistics are dismal in terms of long-term success rates. While it’s best to never start smoking, it’s NEVER too late to stop. The more times you stop, the higher the likelihood is that you’ll join the ranks of the successful. Check out the web-sites for the American Cancer Society and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Find out how you can participate in bringing the tobacco industry to


Sources: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Reuters and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Sources: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Reuters and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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