According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in five adults aged 18 years and older smokes cigarettes, which is more common among men at 23.5 percent versus women at 17.9 percent. However, the gender gap continues to decrease between men and women, putting both sexes at risk from the dangers of smoking.
Differences in How
Men and Women Smoke
"Nicotine is a drug that naturally occurs in tobacco," explained Vidya Counto, M.D., Family Medicine physician. "When a person smokes, nicotine is inhaled and then spreads through the body. From the bloodstream, nicotine stimulates the body's adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline, which raises blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.
"Reaching the brain in as little as 10 seconds, nicotine also interferes with the communication between nerve cells and results in a relaxing, pleasant feeling that makes a person want to smoke more. The body metabolizes nicotine quickly, which causes the levels of nicotine in the blood to drop within a couple of hours, so that the person feels the need to smoke again to maintain the drug's effect."
Reasons for smoking: "Nicotine appears to promote aggression in men, but has a more calming effect on women," Dr. Counto added. "Men also tend to consume more cigarettes, and about 15 percent of male smokers use more than 24 cigarettes a day, compared to 8 percent of female smokers.
"Women tend to smoke because they find it relaxes them and relieves stress. They also appear to choose to smoke for other reasons, such as enjoying the sight and smell of tobacco smoke or the pleasure involved in interacting with others while smoking, and often gather in groups for smoke breaks versus men, who tend to smoke alone.
"In addition, women are more likely to fear weight gain, and may use smoking as a tool for weight control. Smoking is also strongly associated with depression, and women experience the symptoms of depression about twice as frequently than men."
Health concerns: Both men and women have increased health risks as a result of tobacco use, with specific health threats noted for each sex. About half of all smokers who continue with their habit will die of a smoking-related disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Male smokers lose an average of 13.2 years of life due to smoking, while female smokers lose an average of 14.5 years of life.
"In addition, male smokers may experience a decline in sexual potency and fertility; while female smokers have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly if they are taking oral contraceptives. They also have an increased risk for early menopause, cervical cancer, bone fractures, and reproductive difficulties."
Other research indicates differences in the health risks related to lung cancer. A study by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute confirmed that the rates for major lung cancer types are consistently higher for women at every level of exposure to cigarette smoke, which is likely due to a higher susceptibility to tobacco carcinogens.
Why So Hard to Quit?
Overall, many women find it harder to stop smoking than men do. The CDC found that while 29 percent of male smokers have been able to quit, only 19 percent of female smokers have permanently kicked the habit. In addition, women are three times more likely to relapse while trying to quit smoking, if they do not receive any help.
"Women tend to suffer withdrawal more intensely than men, especially during the last two weeks of their menstrual cycles," Dr. Counto said. "In addition, they may find that nicotine replacement therapies like nicotine patches or nicotine gum are less helpful, since a woman's addiction to cigarettes may be reinforced more by the sensory and social context of smoking, rather than just by nicotine's physical effects.
"Because women tend to worry more about weight gain if they stop smoking, they are more likely to relapse under stress. Nicotine addiction also causes psychological changes and smokers connect its pleasurable feelings to dozens of triggers that are interwoven throughout their daily activities, which can prompt their desire to smoke."
While quitting can be a split-second decision for some, it's often a more deliberate process involving smoking cessation aids and a good support system. Research has found that fewer than 5 percent of smokers succeed when they go cold turkey, unless they are considered to be light smokers, smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes day.
Studies have also found that people who use medications or nicotine replacement therapies like the nicotine patch, nicotine gum, or nicotine inhaler can double or triple their chances of quitting successfully. Both sexes have about the same rates of success with prescription smoking-cessation drugs, but studies of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as the patch and nicotine gum, reveal differences between men and women.
"NRT seems to help both men and women get through those tricky first few months without cigarettes, but after six months, women tend to slide back into the smoking habit at higher rates than men," Dr. Counto stated.
"Once you've given up cigarettes, the positive health benefits begin almost immediately," Dr Counto concluded. "Your body starts repairing itself within hours after that last cigarette, and your heart rate and blood pressure drop almost immediately. Within weeks, your circulation and ability to breathe improves dramatically. Those who quit smoking at age 50 cut their odds of dying in half during the next 15 years."
Vidya Counto, M.D., is a board certified Family Medicine physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff. Appointments with Dr. Counto can be scheduled by calling the Columbiana Family Care Center at 750 East Park Avenue in Columbiana, 330-482-3871.