Smoking: why women are at great risk

We all know that smoking is bad for us, but women-give-up-smoking-harder when it comes to some of the potential nasty cigarettes and womenoutcomes.

If you are serious about your health, fitness and general wellbeing, you simply can’t afford to smoke. That isn’t a new message, of course.

It has been known for 40 years or more that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and strokes. In fact, it is estimated that smoking is associated with more than 50 different diseases or disorders.

Recently, further scientific evidence has emerged to suggest that women may be at particular risk from smoking.

This year, a Norwegian study of almost 2000 women showed that women were at a higher risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at a younger age, and after smoking less heavily, than men.

COPD is an umbrella term that incorporates emphysema and chronic bronchitis. There are four stages of the condition, which are ranked in terms of their severity.

“We estimate that 2.1 million people in Australia have some form of COPD, and half of them don’t know it,” says Heather Allan, director of the COPD National Program at the Australian Lung Foundation.

COPD is characterised by shortness of breath and repetitive coughing with mucous, usually in the mornings. It gradually worsens if you don’t do anything about it. “Simple daily activities become almost impossible,” says Allan. “Eventually, you can’t walk from the living room to the kitchen without stopping twice along the way to catch your breath.”

“Many people believe that a few cigarettes a day represent a minimal risk,” says one of the Norwegian researchers. “Our findings show that there is no safe level of exposure to cigarette smoke, and this is particularly true for female smokers.”

The female factor

This isn’t the first study that suggests that women may be more at risk from smoking than men. A 2005 Monash University found that women were more susceptible to exposure to smoke than men. Allan says researchers believe this could be because women have narrower and more sensitive airways than men.

A report by the British Lung Foundation in 2005 suggested it may be because women’s lung capacity is smaller, and population studies have also suggested that there may be a genetic element involved.

This is why health campaigners are so concerned that more young women in their teens and 20s are starting and continuing to smoke than men.

COPD usually appears in people between the ages of 35 and 40, though Allan says increasingly, younger people are being diagnosed. “Before, it was an older person’s disease.

Now we’re seeing people in their early 30s with COPD.” She says the incidence of COPD in Australia is starting to plateau in men, but it is rising in women.

“People don’t take their lung health seriously,” she says. “Women are very aware of their heart and their breasts, but not so much their lungs.”

She says at a recent focus group she conducted in Melbourne with smokers and ex-smokers, all the participants said their health was fine, but none had climbed the flight of stairs to get to the meeting. “They had all started to adjust their lifestyles,” she says. “COPD creeps up gradually without you even realising it.”

The reasons for women’s increased risk of lung disease have not yet been fully researched. According to NHS Direct in the UK, a gene that speeds up the growth of lung tumours is known to be more active in women.

The female hormone oestrogen is also known to affect the development of such tumours.

A conference on thoracic oncology in Switzerland earlier this year also found that women were more susceptible to tobacco carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), and a Spanish expert spoke of the growing awareness that smoking was, indeed, riskier for women.

It is sometimes said that more women have an “addictive” gene that makes it harder for them to give up smoking, and also that, while men tend to become physically addicted to nicotine, one of the most addictive substances, women tend to be more psychologically addicted.

Giving up

The good news is that though COPD is not curable, you can stop the progress of the condition if you catch it early, so it’s important that it gets diagnosed. See your GP if you have any of the symptoms.

Allan says that simply by quitting smoking, at any age, and exercising, you can halt the decline of COPD. She says immunisation from disease and influenza is also important as any infection can easily spread to the lungs.

There is plenty of help out there for quitting smoking, from your local GP to Quit Now. There’s always nicotine-replacement therapy too, which comes in the form of patches, tablets, gum or dummy cigarettes. Alternatively, you could try the complementary therapy approach with herbal cigarettes or hypnotherapy.

Drugs such as Champix and Zyban are also available, but on authority prescription only - your doctor has to call for approval as there are various conditions which need to be met, such as ensuring the patient is enrolled in a support program.

Where to get help

For the cost of a local call from anywhere in Australia, the Quitline provides advice and assistance to smokers who want to quit.

The Quitline can help smokers plan their attempt and give advice on different techniques. You can also access a free copy of the Quit Pack and download the free self-help book, the Quit Booklet. Call 13 18 48 or 13 78 48 or visit

The Australian Lung Foundation has launched a free online Lung Health Checklist this month to encourage early diagnosis of lung disease. Visit

Why non-smoking women are healthier
1 Women who don’t smoke are far less likely to develop lung, mouth, throat, pancreatic, bladder or cervical cancer.

2 Non-smokers’ risk of coronary heart disease and strokes is much reduced.

3 Non-smokers’ risk of these conditions when taking the contraceptive pill is also reduced.

4 Non-smokers reach the menopause two years later than smokers.

5 Non-smokers have fewer fertility problems and a lower risk of miscarriage and pregnancy complications than smokers.

6 Non-smokers’ babies are bigger and healthier at birth, with a lower risk of stillbirth or neonatal death (when a baby dies in the first 28 days of its life).

7 Non-smokers tend to store body fat around their hips rather than their waists, lessening their risk of diabetes
and heart disease.

8 Non-smokers have lower cholesterol than smokers.

9 Non-smokers are less likely to lose their teeth, have gum disease, become incontinent or suffer from eye damage.

10 Non-smokers have stronger bones and a lower risk of osteoporosis.

By Jill Eckersley,The Sunday Telegraph , November 15, 2009

One response to “Smoking: why women are at great risk

  1. “People don’t take their lung health seriously,” she says. “Women are very aware of their heart and their breasts, but not so much their lungs.”

    Yeah, but according to a recent story more and more women (maybe more than men?) are smoking out of concerns for their health/hygiene.

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