What’s Behind the Surprise Global Spike in Female Smoking?

Why more women are lighting up despite the risks.

We fall victim to lung cancer without even putting a stick to our lips and are encumbered with mounting pollution from flicked cigarette filter waste. So why would an increasing number of women add insult to fatal injury by smoking?

The question is like the unfunny butt of a cruel joke and is puzzling everyone – clean air advocates, anti-tobacco lobbyists and  health care experts. We’ve got the tools to quit – the nicotine patch and the Honeyrose herbal cigarettes – along with public restrictions and societal pressures. Yet more of us are puffing away in our cars, hotel rooms, Euro cafes or any other designated spot just to get that fix.

It’s one thing to watch my stubborn, 72-year-old Aunt Dorothy ducking outside to smoke at family events (despite a bad stomach and a husband who suffers from emphysema); it’s another matter to watch young, healthy women taking up the addictive habit to deal with stress or to control their weight – the primary causes for the growing trend say the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control which have been monitoring the numbers.

Latest reports show female smokers make up nearly 20 percent of the world’s tobacco smokers, and that figure is likely to grow due to successful ad campaigns targeting women, with consumption growing fastest among younger women and girls.

As a result, the rate of deaths among this population is also likely to grow – adding to the 5 million who now die each year worldwide from tobacco use and passive smoking. The WHO says the number could reach 8 million deaths by 2030.

To combat the millions the tobacco industry spends each year on ads, health advocates are now trying to step up public awareness campaigns along with anti-smoking restrictions, taxes and bans, especially in low income, developing nations with few controls.

In Indonesia, for example, the tobacco industry is the second largest generator of revenue and a main employer of the third world population – and cigarettes are widely advertised to keep that revenue flowing.  The ads are the opposite of ours, attempting to play up the cool factor of smoking American brands.

Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society is grappling with the contradiction of reduced lung cancer cases in men the past few years along with an increased rate in women. What’s puzzling is that women who don’t smoke are more apt to get lung cancer than men who don’t smoke – this despite the fact more men die of the disease than women – a projected 86,000 men in 2010 compared with 71,000 women. It is believed estrogen is a possible factor.

It all begs the question: If we know we are more prone in general, then why are more young women lighting up?

According to a recent NPR forum, researchers find women have a harder time keeping their vows to quit and tend to succumb to relapse, relying on tobacco to cope with anxiety.  As someone who “craved” a smoke whenever I stepped foot in a newsroom, I can relate.

Research from the Yale School of Medicine found cigarettes fill many roles for women who smoke in “reducing negative mood, even enhancing positive mood, managing the stress of daily life and also managing appetite and weight gain.”

It’s true, many gain up to 15 pounds the first month they quit. And often it is the scale that prompts women watching their weight to relapse.  For this reason, researchers are studying certain therapies to assist in quitting, such as exercising to control both weight and stress. Environmentalists want to link another motivator: personal responsibility in  reducing pollution that turns Earth into an ashtray. An estimated several trillion cigarette butts are flicked on sidewalks, beaches, nature trails and other public places worldwide each year.

The non-profit CigaretteLitter.com works to discourage the blight, arguing the toxic residue in filters are not just unsightly, but damaging to our environment – causing destructive and even fatal fires each year. And the site WhyQuit.com offers blueprints for quitting to those who care deeply about the planet but still crave that Salem Light every time they sip a cocktail at the neighborhood watering hole.

Some women simply opt for cold turkey – which many attest is the only way to go- and stay away from friends who smoke, just like over-eaters might not want to hang with other emotional eaters.

Or, you can go the way of the teen daughters in  Keeping up with the Kardashians, a reality show that strongly influences young female viewers.  In an anti-smoking themed episode, stage mama Kris Jenner is scared into quitting when she witnesses her girls puffing away (dad helped by buying them the rose and marshmallow substitutes).  It got the kids grounded, but mom saw the light.

It goes to show, watching our mothers smoke does seem to condone the habit, just as watching our screen and pop idols making it look so cool and inviting. The recent wave of shocking ads depicting cancer victims smoking and cigarettes as trashy lipstick might thwart the modeling of bad habits, but who knows?

As a kid, I remember flushing my dad’s Silva Thins down the toilet until he quit. Even so, I lit up in college, just as my mother did.

images: Saneboy; ; Tracy Harrison; Meadowrise; Design Inspiration

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.