Smoking and Women’s Health: How Tobacco Harms Women

Women are slightly less likely to smoke than men, but as well as the risks of smoking that apply to everyone, there are several risks that only apply to female smokers. Quitting should be a priority for any women who smoke.

According to the CDC, smoking kills over 480,000 people in the U.S. every year. It doesn’t matter what your gender, how much money you make or what your race, if you smoke, you put yourself at substantial risk of premature death. However, even though women smoke at a slightly lower rate than men, there are some risks of smoking that are unique to women, and the well-known risk of lung cancer from smoking is actually slightly more serious for women than men. Finding out about smoking and women’s health, as well as how tobacco companies have historically targeted women through marketing activities, helps you see the importance of kicking the habit.

Do Men Smoke More Than Women?

Although the disparities between the male and female smoking rates in the U.S. are smaller than in some other countries, it’s still true that men smoke more than women. U.S. smoking rates in 2014 show that 18.8 % of men smoke in comparison to 14.8 % of women. This isn’t a huge difference, but it’s still unavoidably true that women are less likely to smoke than men.

The Risks of Smoking for Women

For the majority of the health conditions caused by smoking, the impact on women and men is roughly the same. Smokers, whether male or female, are between 2 and 4 times more likely to get coronary heart disease than non-smokers, and are also 2 to 4 times more likely to suffer a stroke. Similarly, all smokers regardless of gender are 12 to 13 times more likely to die from COPD, but there is some evidence to suggest that women are more susceptible to developing severe COPD at younger ages.

There is a small difference in the risk of lung cancer between men and women who smoke. Women who smoke are 25.7 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers, whereas men are 25 times more likely. Although the difference is fairly small – and smoking drastically increases your risk of lung cancer whether you’re a man or a woman – female smokers are slightly more likely to develop lung cancer than male smokers.

Smoking and Women’s Health: Risks Specific to Women

Most of the risks of smoking affect both genders, but there are some health risks of smoking that only affect women.

Research shows that women who smoke have more painful periods, and are more likely to have irregular periods. Women who smoke are also more likely than non-smokers to go through menopause at a younger age, and the symptoms associated with menopause can be worse. In particular, women who’ve gone through the menopause and who smoke have lower bone density than non-smoking women in the same situation. This means you’re more likely to break a hip than a non-smoking woman.

There are also some problems with smoking and pregnancy. For example, women who smoke may have more difficulty getting pregnant, and if you continue smoking during pregnancy there are many potential consequences for the baby, ranging from reduced birth weight through to problems like cleft lips. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is also more likely in babies born to women smokers.

Although men do get breast cancer rarely, the condition is much more common in women, and there is evidence that the risk of breast cancer is increased in smokers.

Smoking and Women’s Health: Tobacco Company Marketing

Historically, there was a much bigger difference in smoking rates between men and women. When the 1964 Surgeon General’s report was released, the smoking rate among men started to decline, but the rate among women kept increasing. A big part of the reason for this was the marketing messages from tobacco companies, who developed slimmer cigarettes in pastel-shaded packets to appeal to the female market. They also implied that smoking helps women maintain a trim figure.

Although tobacco companies’ marketing has been severely restricted, the implication that smoking helps you stay thin may still have an impact on both men and women. However, while smokers generally do weigh less than non-smokers, the relationship between smoking and weight is more complicated than it might seem, and the heaviest smokers actually weigh more than non-smokers. Additionally, even if smoking led to weight loss, the severe health consequences it brings with it shows that it really isn’t a worthwhile weight loss strategy.

Helping Women Quit Smoking

The good news is that there are many effective treatments that can help both women and men quit smoking. This includes medications and alternative nicotine products, and either approach is better than trying to quit unassisted (“cold turkey”). Remember, the sooner you quit smoking, the better. Women still might not smoke quite as much as men do, but the health consequences if you do are just as serious – and in some cases, more so.