There has been a substantial increase in smoking among women. What has been alarming to the health professionals has been the increase in smoking among teen-age girls (twelve to sixteen). In 1968 it was estimated that 0.6 percent of girls twelve to fourteen years of age smoked and by 1979, the figure rose to 4.3 percent. For girls fifteen to sixteen years of age, the 1968 estimate for regular cigarette smokers was 9.6 percent and by 1979 this figure rose to 11.8 percent.
One wonders if the health consequences of smoking are any different for women than for men. In terms of lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis, the results are the same, that is, there is a greater incidence of these diseases that can be directly attributed to prolonged smoking.
While the weathered look in a middle-aged man adds to his macho appeal, this same look in middle aged women is called wrinkles. A cosmetic consequence of smoking in women is a tendency for earlier wrinkling of the face. It has been suggested that perhaps poor circulation of blood to the periphery of the body may, in time, cause premature deterioration in skin tissue. A more significant finding was the correlation between heavy wrinkling and heart disease so that wrinkling could be considered an early symptom of heart disease. It has also been found that women who smoke tend to reach menopause earlier than nonsmoking women.
For women, the greatest hazard from smoking is related to pregnancy. Women who smoke tend to have more miscarriages and stillbirths; their babies weigh less and are more likely to have certain congenital abnormalities. Nicotine and carbon monoxide in the form of increased COHb levels pass through the placenta to the fetus. This results in periodic reduced blood flow to the baby because of nicotine interference with circulation. In addition, the increased COHb level in the mother’s blood prevents an adequate exchange of oxygen to the fetus.
There are some disconcerting facts about women and smoking as compared to a generation ago. These include:
- Women are starting to smoke at a younger age.
- The younger a woman starts smoking, the more likely she is to become a regular, heavy smoker.
- More women are heavy smokers today than in the past.
- Once a woman takes up smoking,, she is not likely to give it up.
- More men have successfully quit smoking than woman.
To what can we attribute the increase in smoking among women over the past 25 years, particularly in view of the fact that so much information has come forth in the past decade on the health hazards of smoking? There are those who insist that the increase in smoking has been a natural outcome of the women’s movement. The role of a woman as a human being first and then as a woman has given her some new choices in terms of her role in society. Yet, whether we see a television executive overseeing her weekly productions or a mother overseeing the growth of her family, we see many more women smoking.
The tobacco industry of course, rode the crest of the feminist movement. They named cigarettes after women, implying that now women had a cigarette they could call their own. They only photographed beautiful, well dressed young women to advertise their products. Further, if it were not for the cigarette advertising dollar, many magazines and newspapers would be in financial trouble; in return for this advertising dollar, many magazines do not publish articles about the hazards of smoking. In essence, the women’s service magazines (with the exception of Good Housekeeping, which does not accept cigarette advertising) have become manipulative tools of an industry that has no concern for the welfare of women. One final ironic twist was described by R. C. Smith:
“Not even Ms., during its six years of publication has done anything substantial with the subject (smoking). Thus readers of Ms. may not know of their progress toward one kind of equality they perhaps could do without: the lung cancer rate for women is climbing steadily, and threatens to equal that of men…..An editor at Ms. quite frankly linked Ms.’s failure to publish anything about cigarettes and health to the fact that the magazine is “heavily dependent on cigarette advertising.” She added, with some irony, that Ms. had rejected an ad for Virginia Slims cigarettes (“You’ve come a long way, baby”) because it was sexist.”
Curbing the Habit
If you are not about to quit the cigarette-smoking habit, yet are concerned enough to want to reduce the risks from smoking is there anything you can do?
- Smoke no more than eight low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes that have a low yield of carbon monoxide. A word of caution—when switching to a low-nicotine, low-tar cigarette, unconsciously, people smoke more of these cigarettes to compensate for the lowered nicotine levels.
- Switch to a pipe or cigar and do not inhale.
- Do not inhale as deeply as you have been.
- Smoke only on third or one half of the way down the cigarette and stop.
- Take fewer puffs on the cigarette.
- Do not drink alcoholic beverages, especially when smoking. Alcohol greatly increases the carcinogenic qualities of tobacco and greatly increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus in people who smoke and drink. Drinking also tends to encourage more smoking because it helps to take nicotine out of the body more quickly.