Cancer and Tobacco Control Gender Women's Health

Fast facts: Women and smoking

Written by Wilma Stassen

While South African women are less likely to smoke than men, ladies often smoke more cigarettes per day than guys. Health-e brings you eight facts you might not know about women and smoking.

Women comprise about one-fifth of all smokers worldwide© WHO

Women comprise about one-fifth of all smokers worldwide
© WHO

1. They get ’em young: In South Africa, both boys and girls usually start smoking in their teens. Women usually start smoking around the age of 16 years and go on to smoke for about two decades before quitting, according to a recent Human Sciences Research Council report.

About one-fifth the world’s one billion smokers are women.

2. Kicking the habit: South African women are twice as likely to report having tried to quit smoking than men, according to the HSRC.

3. “Light” doesn’t mean safe, ladies: Internationally, more women than men smoke “light” cigarettes. Marketing strategies lure consumers with misleading categories, such as “light” or “low tar.” More women than men smoke “light” cigarettes often in the mistaken belief that “light” means “safer.”

Actually, “light” smokers often engage in compensatory smoking, inhaling more deeply and more frequently to absorb the desired amount of nicotine, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

4. Puff, puff, pass: The HSRC found that women smoke an average of ten cigarettes a day while men “lit up” about eight times a day.

5. Hook, line and sinker: Women are one of the tobacco industry’s biggest targets. The industry gears richly-funded marketing campaigns towards women through advertisements that draw on gender stereotypes, and link tobacco use to concepts of beauty, prestige and freedom. The industry actively targets women because comparatively few women currently use tobacco, and women are increasingly able to afford tobacco.

6. ‘Till death do us part: Every year, 1.5 million women die from tobacco use, largely in low- and middle-income countries. This number could double by 2030, according to the WHO.

7. Back that baby carriage up: Tobacco use harms women differently from men. Women who smoke are more likely than those who do not to experience infertility and delays in conceiving. Smoking during pregnancy increases risks of premature delivery, stillbirth and newborn death, and may cause a reduction in breast milk.

Smoking also increases women’s risk for cervical cancer, which kills eight women every day in South Africa.

8. What you don’t smoke, can still hurt you: Women constitute about 60 percent of deaths from second-hand smoke. Worldwide, second-hand smoke causes 430 000 adult deaths per year.

About the author

Wilma Stassen

Wilma Stassen is a reporter at Health-e News Service. She focuses on non-communicable diseases. Follow her on Twitter @Lawim