Q&A: Smoking and How It Affects Women

Did you know that two weeks to three months after quitting smoking, a woman's heart attack risk begins to drop? In honor of the Great American Smokeout, I spoke with Dr. Howard Koh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to learn more about smoking and how it affects women. He also told me that the number of former U.S. smokers now exceeds the number of current smokers. Talk about encouraging news! Read my interview with Dr. Koh to learn more.

What is the Great American Smokeout?

The Great American Smokeout, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, takes place every year on the third Thursday of November. It encourages smokers to go one day without cigarettes (November 21, 2013) and to make plans to quit smoking for good on the days that follow.

Why is smoking still such an issue?

Smoking is still the single largest preventable cause of disease, disability, and premature death in the United States. Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke and another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking.

How does smoking affect women?

About one in six American women is a current smoker. Smoking is directly responsible for 80 percent of lung cancer deaths in American women each year. In fact, lung cancer kills many more women than breast cancer in the United States.

Why shouldn't women smoke during pregnancy?

Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of pregnancy complications, premature delivery, low birth weight, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Also, the lungs of babies and children who breathe secondhand smoke don't work as well as the lungs of those who are not exposed to smoke. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health and the health of your baby.

Why is it so difficult to quit smoking?

Nicotine, a chemical that is in all tobacco products, is very addictive. More people in the United States are addicted to nicotine than to any other chemical. Because nicotine is so addictive, people can find it hard to quit smoking. They may feel irritable or anxious, have trouble concentrating, and feel hungry when they try to quit.

Most smokers try to quit several times, but many, many succeed. In fact, the number of former U.S. smokers now exceeds the number of current smokers. Smokers can learn from their previous quit attempts and be better prepared to overcome the specific challenges (sometimes called triggers) that make them want to smoke again. With continued encouragement and support, many people finally succeed in quitting for good.

If a woman quits smoking will she see improvements to her health?

Quitting at any time has benefits, no matter how long you've smoked. If a woman quits smoking now:

  • 20 minutes after quitting, her heart rate drops.
  • 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in her blood drops to normal.
  • 2 weeks to 3 months after quitting, her heart attack risk begins to drop and her lung function improves.
  • 3 weeks after quitting, physical nicotine addiction ends.
  • 1 to 9 months after quitting, coughing and shortness of breath decrease.
  • 1 year after quitting, her risk for heart attack drops sharply.

What resources are available to help smokers quit?

There are many proven services and treatments that can ease withdrawal symptoms and help you quit. Although many people quit without medication, FDA-approved medications combined with counseling can greatly increase the likelihood of quitting successfully. Combining medication and counseling is more effective than either medication or counseling alone.

For support to help you quit, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit women.smokefree.gov. To learn more about the dangers of tobacco, visit BeTobaccoFree.gov.