Women's Health and Smoking

Women Who Smoke

Every cigarette you smoke is doing you harm. Whilst both sexes face many of the same ill effects of smoking tobacco, women face certain harmful consequences which are uniquely theirs. In the US alone 23 million women smoke and it is estimated that over 140,000 will die every year as a result of their habit. Of particular concern is how young they start, with 1 in 5 high school girls classified as regular smokers. Most women take up the habit in their teens and due to the addictive nature of nicotine they quickly become hooked.

Women Smokers and Heart Disease

Heart disease takes its toll of both male and female smokers however women smokers have a greater relative risk of cardiovascular disease than their male counterparts. The reasons are not fully known but oestrogen may play a pivotal part. For women smokers who also use oral contraceptives the relative risk of heart disease rises to 40 times that experienced by women non-smokers.

Smoking and Fertility

Smoking reduces both male and female fertility however, the effect on female fertility is particularly marked. The fertility rates for women smokers is only about 70% that of non-smokers. Reduction in fertility is due to a variety of reasons although impaired ovulation and zygote implantation account for most of it. Sperm viability in men, after ejaculation, is also reduced due to the accumulation of smoking related toxins in the mucous lining of the cervix. Women smokers, on average, experience menopause 3 years early than non-smokers.

Smoking and Pregnancy

Smoking in pregnancy is bad news for the developing foetus. Few pregnant smokers are unaware of the risks although approximately 33% choose to continue to smoke throughout the pregnancy. All women want the best for their growing child but the nature of nicotine addiction makes it extremely difficult to quit. The toxins present in tobacco smoke pass into the mother's bloodstream to the placenta and from there pass directly into the baby's blood. The effects on the unborn are well known. Mothers who smoke are more likely to have pre-term babies, with all its associated problems. In addition, smoking mothers are at a higher risk of miscarriage and neonatal death. Even after birth, children born to smoking mothers exhibit higher incidences of respiratory and ear infections.

Women and Smoking

Giving up smoking is hard and research has consistently shown that women find it harder to quit than men. The reason, or reasons, for this consistently observed sex difference is not obvious. However, the answer, partly at least, probably involves subtle, but complex, behavioural differences between the sexes. This is not great news for women smokers as overall they are at greater risk of smoking related diseases than men. In earlier decades the death toll from smoking was disproportionately biased towards the men folk. Seventy years ago a man smoking in public was commonplace and a woman knew her place. In that time, few women smoked and if they did they smoked in private; times change, mostly for the better. Emancipation is a wonderful thing and we should all applaud the march of social progress. The trick of course, for all human kind, is to learn from medical history and to pursue a healthy course of habits. To eat less and to smoke not at all are counsels of perfection. The human condition is not perfect. As long as we exist there will be those amongst us who will tend to over indulge in life's pleasures regardless of the health consequences or societies censure.