Saturday, August 11, 2007

Book Review (Part 1): "Women Under the Influence"

Women and Cigarettes: “The Virginia Slims Woman is Catching up to the Marlboro Man.”

“Compared to boys and men, girls and women become addicted to alcohol, nicotine, and illegal and prescription drugs at lower levels of use and in shorter periods of time, develop substance-related diseases like lung cancer more quickly, suffer more severe brain damage from alcohol and drugs like Ecstasy, and often pay the ultimate price sooner. Yet 92 per cent of women in need of treatment for alcohol and drug problems do not receive it. Stigma, shame, and ignorance hide the scope of the problem and the severity of the consequences.”

--Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

“Women Under the Influence,” with a Foreword by former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, appeared in print last year, but is well worth a second look. The result of studies undertaken at Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and collectively written by that group, “Women Under the Influence” gathers together a decade’s worth of research on the gender differences researchers have thus far been able to identify in the addict population.

The same genetic and biological mechanisms that predispose certain men toward alcoholism and other forms of drug addiction do the same in women. Young women with family histories of alcoholism will, like Pavlov’s dogs, salivate more intensely at the sight of alcohol than women from families without addiction histories. Studies of female twins also confirm the behavioral link between major depressive disorder and substance abuse. Women who have suffered from major depression are three to six times more likely to suffer from alcoholism than those who have not. Despite these and other commonalities, however, women and men often follow different arcs of addiction on a drug-by-drug basis.

We begin with cigarettes, since it is with nicotine that women have lately shown the ability to achieve a grisly parity, or in some cases even outdo men in the damage done by nicotine. About one American woman out of five smokes. While rates of lung cancer in men have been slowly declining since 1980, the number of women with lung cancer has increased 600 percent over the past 70 years. More women now die of lung cancer than the combined fatalities from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer. As Antonia C. Novella, former U.S. Surgeon General, put it: “The Virginia Slims Woman is Catching up to the Marlboro Man.”

80 per cent of female smokers began smoking before the age of 18, and women did not begin smoking in large numbers until the late 1940s, thus producing a delayed epidemic of lung cancer in women. To make matters worse, the Columbia group concluded that “At the same level of exposure to tobacco smoke, women have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than men.” Up to three times more likely, according to some studies. Moreover, women who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day face an 80 per cent greater risk of developing breast cancer, compared to non-smoking women.

Women who smoke heavily have four times as many heart attacks as non-smoking women. Add in oral contraceptives, and the risk of heart attack increases by 1,000 percent.

Women who smoke have more respiratory disorders. Wheezing rates are consistently higher for women than for men, at all age levels. Women smokers develop more crow’s feet around the eyes than men who smoke. Female pack-a-day smokers suffer a steady accretion of bone density and a concomitant increase in rates of osteoporosis. And the fact that nicotine is an effective appetite suppressant is an open secret, as a couple of generations of chain-smoking supermodels have demonstrated.

Cigarette companies are increasingly placing their bets abroad, among a new generation of young women in countries like China, where authorities estimate that as many as 20 million Chinese women have taken up smoking over the past ten years. In “Lung cancer in U.S. women: A contemporary epidemic,” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA 291(14):1767), J.D. Patel et. al. suggest that “Curtailing the increase in tobacco use among women in developing countries represents one of the greatest opportunities for disease prevention in the world today.”

The silver lining, if there is one, is that a majority of women still choose not to smoke.

Women Under the Influence--purchase info

End of Part One.

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