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Women smoke "differently" to men – and also suffer differently under their addiction

(Vienna, 26th March 2013) Women start smoking for different reasons than men – and are doing so earlier and earlier. Women also suffer differently from their nicotine dependence and find it more difficult to stop smoking. This is why gender-specific aspects should be borne in mind with regard to  prevention, treatment and follow-up measures, stresses Andjela Bäwert from the University Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy on the occasion of the 7th annual conference of the Austrian Society for Gender-Specific Medicine taking place in Vienna next Friday.

"Women start smoking for different reasons to men. They smoke much more in stress situations whilst men are more likely to consume nicotine in company, that is, when they are having a good time. Incidentally, it’s the same with alcohol," says Bäwert.

As nicotine is broken down faster in women, nicotine withdrawal sets in earlier than is the case in men, and women very often react to it with dysphoria, depression, anxiety disorders or sleep disturbances. "Women find it more difficult to stop smoking, although more women, middle aged ones in particular, would really like to stop. The relapse rate is also higher in women." There is also the fact that, for many women, smoking is associated with keeping their weight under control and those women fear that they will gain weight as the result of an increased appetite once they stop smoking. Says Bäwert: "Many female smokers say to themselves 'I am going to have a cigarette before I have something to eat'.“

The reason to continue smoking or the difficulty in giving it up is to be found in the effect of the dopamine released when smoking. "Dependency is reached relatively quickly, it only takes a few cigarettes," says Bäwert. "And the earlier you start smoking, the quicker you will become dependent." This is why prevention is enormously important early on – especially as more and more young women are smoking, particularly in Austria.

In Europe men who smoke are still in the majority. Around 40 percent of European males smoke daily, but only 18.2 percent of women. However, amongst 15 year-old Austrians more girls are smoking than boys (21 percent and 19 percent). Says Bäwert: "The tendency to consume nicotine is clearly rising amongst girls and women, but dropping slightly amongst men and boys."

First time smokers are getting younger
As a sensible preventive measure, Bäwert pleads the case for the introduction of a general smoking ban – in bars as well. "On the one hand a general smoking ban as a preventive measure to protect young people would be a clear social policy statement. On the other hand, the frequency of cigarette consumption sinks automatically if one has to go and stand outside."  More and more Austrians are starting early: in 1979 12.5 percent of men and 8.2 percent of women stated that they had started smoking before they turned 15, by 1997 these figures were 19.4 percent of men and 15.2 percent of women and in 2007 around 25 percent for both sexes. And the tendency is still on the increase.

WHO: one million women will die from smoking-related disorders in 2020
The consequences of years of nicotine consumption are life-threatening. Linked to the habit are malignant tumours in the lungs, oral cavity, pancreas, stomach or oesophagus, cardio-vascular diseases and heart attacks, strokes, chronic bronchitis, increased risk of thrombosis or damage to the foetus in pregnancy. Worldwide about 1.3 billion people smoke. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, by 2020 around one million women worldwide will die from smoking-related diseases.

E-cigarette caution
By the way, the MedUni Vienna expert advises caution with e-cigarettes, often mentioned as an alternative to nicotine cigarettes: "There are hardly any studies on this, and so at present we don’t know whether they are not at least as harmful."