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Why women smoke.

(HALIFAX) "Local women lead world's smokers," a recent Halifax newspaper headline reads. An international study of cardiovascular diseases in 39 cities in 23 countries show Halifax women smoke an average of 20 cigarettes a day; (women in other countries smoke seven cigarettes a day; Halifax county's men's smoking was much lower). Young girls are beginning to smoke, perhaps due to peer pressure, the researcher said. And once women start smoking, they tend not to give it up.

Starting -- not

just following the

pack

But peer pressure doesn't tell the whole story. In a 1986 Herizons article, Patricia Hadaway found that, among 2,000 high school students, 48 per cent of females smoked -- (34 per cent of males smoked). Hadaway concluded smoking was a coping behavior -- a way to deal with stress: "Smoking seems to be a way to exert some personal control over one's environment -- a conclusion startlingly parallel to the suggested cause of anorexia nervosa.

The 1990 Nova Scotia Council on Smoking and Health's study on Students and Tobacco seems to confirm this. Young regular smokers said there were "good things" about smoking: most said "it keeps me calm." (Tastes good; the answer most often cited by boys, was tied for first). The second most common answer for girls was: "It keeps me slim." The sample includes almost 3,000 Nova Scotia students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12. Regular use of tobacco among males and females remained similar (from 15 to 25 per cent) until age 15, when regular use among male and females dropped to 13 per cent, and rose to 33 per cent among young women.

Th Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women's study of young women found that 30 per cent of young women smoke, sometimes substituting cigarettes for food. Half the 1,600 young women surveyed felt they were too fat, and 44 per cent had been on a diet during the past year.

But the most startling finding was that, while young women's aspirations to go to university or college were high among 14- and 15-year-olds, at age 18, their expectations had dropped significantly. The drop in young women's career expectations is particularly striking when we compare the huge discrepancies between the broad range of professional, well-paid and challenging roles they can imagine for themselves, and the traditional, low-paying, dead-end jobs they expect. Among some grade 12s, expectations dropped from lawyer to maid, from teacher to "minimum wage job" from RCMP officer to secretary.

The Women's Centre in Montreal sees smoking as a class issue, postulating that many women smoke" as a substitute, or a means of compensating for what was missing in their lives" (Health Promotion, Spring 1990). Is there any question in anyone's mind why Virginia Slims sells 9 billion cigarettes a year? Tobacco companies know young women want to be slim, to be cool, to be career women. And while these goals can seem impossible to attain, a pack of Ladies' Long Lights is available in any corner store.

Virginia Slims has recently respondent to women's "needs" in their ads. To deal with the issue of second-hand smoke, the Ultra Lights are advertised as being "Low Smoke -- 70 per cent less smoke from the lit end." The Lights offer an engagement calendar for the stressed-out working woman. If only prevention and cessation programs since 1968, when Virginiga Slims were launched, had paid this much attention to women!

Using -- reach for a Lucky,

not a rocket launcher

In her 1987 Background Paper on Women and Tobacco, Lorraine Greaves notes that, as they age, women's reasons for smoking change from social to more personal reasons. In The Ladykillers, Bobbie Jacobson found that adult women continued to smoke to suppress "the unacceptable." The use smoking as a safety valve, an alternative to letting off steam. "They smoke, not to accompany expressions of frustration or anxiety, but instead of expressing these feelings."

Control, or power, in society, is a key issue. Smokers are now increasingly found among groups who have little -- young women, natives, the unemploywed and poor, service, and clerical workers.

Nurses smoke about as much as other women, but they are harshly criticized for doing so. A 1985 issue of The Canadian Nurse asks: "Why, in the face of all evidence available, do we continue to be a role model for something we know is hazardous, not only to our own health, but to the health of our families, friends and clients? Jacobson answer their question: "The nature of stresses and frustrations in the workplace is another contributing factor to smoking rates.... Nursing auxiliaries and aides have smoking rates of over 50 per cent, compared to fully qualified nurses, whose rates are 30 to 40 per cent. Hospital work is emotionally and physically demanding, and smoking does seem to be a barometer of high-stress specialities -- with psychiatric nurses, and, in some cases, cancer nurses having the highest rates of all."

Phyllis Jensen writes in Quitting Smoking is a Subversive Activity, (Healthsaring, Spring 1984), that nicotine alters the blood sugar to create a sensation of appetite suppression, and stimulates the heart rate to produce a lift. Women who smoke are, on average, thinner than those who do not (Radical Self-Care, Fall, 1984). And Jacobson notes that, in larger doses, nicotine acts as a tranquillizer. Tobacco is not, after all, a wonder drug. But, while it runs women's health, it gives them what they need. As Patricia Rawson and Debbie Holmberg-Schwartz pointed out in "The Politics of Quitting Smoking" (Herizons, December, 1984), the cigarette is a symbol for what women really need. "Women never need a cigarette. They need to rest, to eat, to get angry, and -- for their own wellbeing -- they need to quit smoking."

Quitting -- understanding

the not-yet-free woman

Early efforts to get women to quit focused on their reproductive role, or sexuality. Smoking harmed the fetus or gave women wrinkles. As if women's health per se was not important. With a few notable exceptions and anti-smoking messages aimed at women still highlight the traditional roles. Jacobson says such campaigns generate mainly guilt and anxiety, and Greaves questions the value of adding stress to women's lives when they are already vulnerable. They just make women smokers want to light up.

Many cessation campaigns focus on the provision fo smoke-free places. But Greaves warns that, "as positive as these developments are for decreasing smoking prevalence, there are latent or unintended consequences to these new norms." Implications included the solidifying of the identity of the smokers as a smoker, and the strengthening of divisions between smokers and non-smokers.

In the introduction to Good Girls/Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face, (1987) Laurie Bell describes a meeting between the two groups at a feminist's house. "Because of our adherence to the non-smoking rule, the prostitutes were relegated to a back room space, an area to which they were accustomed because of laws and social mores."

When men in positions of power were the smokers, they lit up whenever and wherever they pleased -- even while reporting the CBC-TV news. But, from 1965 to 1985, the rate of smoking among men declined by 20 per cent; among women by 1 per cent. Now men are quitting, public places and work sites are increasingly smoke-free. Dare I link this to our society's male-defined system of rights, a form of individualism that tends to "foster concern for protecting oneself against intrusion from others"? Susan Sherwin (in Knowledge Reconsidered: A Feminist Overview, 1984) urges feminists to formulate a new conception of ethics that focuses on the social, not the atomistic, individual view of society.

It takes the average smoker three to five attempts before quitting for good. But women's relapses appear to differ from men's. While men tend to light up again on positive occasions -- at a party -- women tend to relapse in reaction to conflict or loss to cope with stress. Jacobson quotes a married woman: "My family find me so irritable that, despite hating smoking themselves, they beg me to go out and buy cigarettes."

Greaves says that, not unlike battered women who repeatedly return to violent homes before leaving for good, women who smoke may use each attempt at quitting to increase their ability to cope. Quitting may be a continuum, not an either-or-situation. She also emphasizes there is a pre-cessation stage -- the "faltering" or "wavering" of the habit. Naming the stages and recognizing the progress of the not-yet-free woman could provide support.

Greaves encourages women's groups to take on smoking as an issue, and urges ex-smokers and non-smokers to become involved.

Tobacco companies know very well why young women start smoking, and what keeps them hooked. The next woman you see smoking may be trying to follow our society's dictum that she is slim; she may be trying to shield her family from her unexpressed anger; she may have a great deal of responsibility and little real control in her workplace. She may have relapsed after a stree-filled event. Or, like me, she may be in the pre-cessation stage, and worried about leaving this "sisterhood" of smoking.

Charlynn Toews is a Halifax-based free lance writer and frequent contributor to Canadian Dimension.
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Author:Toews, Charlynn
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Words:1533
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