Why Cigarettes are a Woman's Worst Enemy

Here are some compelling reasons to quit smoking.

4 min read

Sure, cigarettes can harm anybody, men and women alike.But some of smoking's ill effects, from ectopic pregnancy to premature menopause, are reserved for women only. This November 19 is the American Cancer Society's 22nd Great American Smokeout. If you haven't decided togive up smoking yet, here are some compelling reasons to quit now.

Not only can smoking cause a variety of cancers in both men and women,it puts women at higher risk of cervical cancer, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). A Danish study publishedin the April 21, 1999 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer finds that premenopausal women who smoke are six times more likely to developrectal cancer than those who don't.

According to the ACOG, women who smoke experience more severe premenstrual symptoms and have a 50 percent increase in cramps lasting two or more days.

Smoking affects practically every phase of conception, according to VickiSeltzer, M.D., vice president for women's health services at North Shore-LongIsland Jewish Health System in New York. "Smokers have a greater risk ofnot ovulating, and it is also less likely that a fertilized egg will implantin the uterus. Smokers who receive in vitro fertilization are less likelyto be successful." Seltzer also notes that nicotine interferes with thefunction of the fallopian tube and can hinder an egg from traveling normallyto the uterus, which can lead to an ectopic or tubal pregnancy -- potentiallylife-threatening conditions.

"When you smoke during pregnancy, you poison the fetus," says Benjamin Sachs, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School. "Carbon monoxide has a greater affinity for fetal tissue than for adult tissue, and when nicotine crosses the placenta it speeds up the [baby's] heart rate."

According to the ACOG, smoking increases a pregnant woman's risk of miscarrying by 39 percent and heightens the chances of other serious complications, including placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the uterine wall), placenta previa (when the placenta covers the opening of the uterus) and stillbirth.

Many studies have pointed to maternal smoking as the most preventable cause of low birth weight. The breast milk of smokers can carry nicotine to a suckling baby. And a 1995 report in the Journal of Pediatrics found that infants exposed to tobacco smoke are nearly three times more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome.

You've probably noticed that smokers develop wrinkles earlier than nonsmokers. What often goes unnoticed is that smoking hastens menopause by one to two years. "Nicotine interferes with the blood supply to the ovary, and if you decrease blood supply to any organ, you decrease its function," says Sandra Carson, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Estrogen is produced in the ovaries, which "could explain why smoking brings on earlier menopause," Carson says. Cigarettes can lead to early osteoporosis, too, adds Carson: many studies have shown smoking significantly reduces bone mineral density.

A woman who smokes is two to six times more likely to have a heart attack than one who doesn't, according to the National Institutes of Health. One to four cigarettes a day is enough to double your risk of heart disease, says the ACOG. And a Finnish study published in the July 1998 British Medical Journal found that female smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack after age 65 as male smokers. Researchers believe estrogen -- which smoking apparently inhibits -- helps protect women against heart disease.

And remember that your behavior sets an example for your daughter or any girl in your life. "The rate of high school girls who are smoking is now on par with that of boys," says Wanda Jones, a spokeswoman for the National Women's Health Information Center. "This is not the kind of equality for women our mothers and grandmothers envisioned."