You’re female, age 15. Just for a moment, picture yourself in the future. Not your future as in what you’re doing this summer, but when you’re about 30 years old. Would you like to see yourself in a good job? as a mom? traveling? living in a place of your own? as drug addict with a killing habit?
A safe guess at your answers: Yes. Perhaps.
Good idea. Yes. No.
Of course you don’t see drug dependence in your future. But when it comes to one of the most common and dangerous forms of drug addiction, many young women take the first step every day. They smoke their first cigarette.
A young woman’s first cigarette may not lead to more, but it could. If young smokers continue to smoke, by age 20 they probably will be addicted to the habit. (In some cases, addiction occurs after only a few cigarette.) And down the road, their habit could cost them their good health–and ultimately their life, long before they reach old age.
The World Health Organization estimates that the number of women who die each year from smoking-related diseases will double to more than 1 million over the next three decades. More troubling news:
* Recent research by British and Norwegian scientists indicates that women who smoke are more likely to develop lung cancer than are male smokers. In fact, scientists conducting the research say that preliminary evidence from the United States shows that women run about twice the risk that men do of getting lung cancer from smoking.
* Statistics produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that although increasing numbers of U.S. women are quitting the habit, this is not the case among female teens. More than 18 percent of female high school seniors smoked in 1993, about the same percentage as in 1988.
The Toll on Women
The toll that smoking takes on females is, however, hardly a new story. Fifteen years ago, in 1980, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report concentrating entirely on the effect that smoking has on a woman’s health. The 359-page report cited hundreds of studies that reveal that women who smoke have increased risk of not only different types of cancer but of heart and respiratory diseases as well. There was more: Women who smoke face unique risks in pregnancy and are more likely than nonsmokers to give birth to babies who weigh less than normal.
Regardless of gender, smoking is an unhealthy venture. The tobacco in cigarettes contains at least 40 known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals). Lung cancer is not the only cancer caused by these chemicals but it is the most prevalent. Chemicals in tobacco smoke collect in the lungs and trigger the formation of cancerous growths.
In the lungs of a female, the recent British and Norwegian research found, tobacco smoke is especially damaging to the lung cells’ DNA, the basic genetic material. The team of scientists says their study indicates that smoke, specifically a group of carcinogens in smoke, does more damage to women’s DNA than to that of males.
Were it not for tobacco, lung cancer would be far less common among both men and women. Approximately 90 percent of lung cancer cases in men and 79 percent in women are attributable to cigarette smoking. Sadly, nearly 90 percent of lung cancer patients die within five years of diagnosis. If lung cancer is detected early, survival chances improve somewhat, but few cases are detected early and there is no effective treatment for lung cancer.
Research has tied other cancers to smoking and its effects on women. Compared to nonsmokers, female smokers have three to four times more cervical cancer. Once a smoker has cervical cancer, radiation therapy is considered to be less effective. Other cancers associated with smoking include cancers of the larynx (voice box), esophagus, pancreas, and mouth.
Out of Breath
Cancer isn’t the body’s only payback for smoking. Smoking is a major cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the name given a series of diseases such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, which occur more often in women who smoke than in those who don’t.
COPD results in a permanent reduction of the amount of oxygen in the blood. With less oxygen, a person with COPD is chronically short of breath and tires easily.
COPD is a major cause of smoking-related deaths in the United States today. Death rates for COPD have paralleled those for lung cancer and have been increasing over the past 25 years. Nearly 80,000 people die each year from this condition, according to the U.S. Public Health Service, and cigarette smoking accounts for 82 percent of these deaths.
But death rates alone don’t tell the whole story about the toll COPD takes on those who suffer from it–and on their families. Death usually occurs only after a long period of disability, and in many cases COPD complicates other serious–and ultimately fatal–conditions.
Loss of a Unique Protection
And then there’s the story of smoking and heart disease, the greatest overall killer of women as they grow older. Until she reaches menopause, a woman’s female hormones give her unique protection against heart disease. This protection declines as the female body produces less of these hormones in later years. And even before menopause, a woman’s coronary arteries can begin narrowing and hardening, a process that is speeded up when a person smokes.
Cancer, heart disease, a life of breathing difficulties: Women who smoke put themselves at a far greater risk for developing them than those who don’t. Who wants these major problems in their future? Picture yours without them.
AN UGLY HABIT
Health concerns aren’t the only convincing reasons not to take up smoking. The habit has other physical side effects. To name a few:
* bad breath
* smelly clothes
* stained teeth
* deep wrinkles around the eyes and lips caused by a reduction in blood circulation to the skin.
THE GENDER ISSUE
Is smoking a gender-neutral killer?
Among men, lung cancer death rates began to climb sharply in the 1930s, approximately 20 to 30 years after men began smoking in large numbers. Now, as fewer men smoke, lung cancer deaths for men are beginning to level off and are expected to decline.
Women experienced an increase in lung cancer deaths similar to men starting in the 1960s, approximately 20 to 30 years after greater numbers of women took up the habit. Lung cancer rates continue to increase among women. In 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. This rising rate is expected to peak around the year 2010.
SECONDHAND SMOKE, FIRSTHAND RISK
A woman who smokes puts not only herself at risk, but others around her, too. Often the others are babies and children who have no choice but to inhale their mother’s cigarette smoke.
In 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that fumes given off from the tips of lighted cigarettes have higher concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals than the smoke that smokers inhale.
Numerous studies have linked secondhand smoke to health complications in nonsmokers, especially children. Because their bodies are still developing, exposure to the poisons in secondhand smoke puts children in danger of severe respiratory diseases and can hinder the growth of their lungs. On top of that, says the U.S. Public Health Service, the effects can last a lifetime.