When it comes to smoking-related health issues, women have undoubtedly come a long way, baby -- but they still have progress to make. According to a 2001 surgeon general's report, approximately 165,000 women die prematurely each year from diseases related to smoking, including cancer and heart disease. Lung cancer alone reportedly killed nearly 68,000 American women in 2001. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that adult women smokers who die of a smoking-related disease lose an average of 14.5 years of life, and adult male smokers who die of a smoking-related disease lose an average of 13.2 years. Despite these sobering realities, more than one in five women (22%) currently smoke, according to a July 2002 Gallup poll*.
Usage Declining Over Time
While anti-smoking advocates would say that the percentage of women who smoke is still far too high, the percentage has decreased over the past several decades. In 1944, more than one in three women (36%) smoked and those rates hovered at or just below that level until the 1980s. But by the mid-1980s, the percentage of women who smoke fell to 28% and continued to diminish until it fell to 22% in 1997. That percentage holds steady today. That decline is even more dramatic among men. While almost half of men (48%) were smokers in 1944, only about a quarter (26%) admitted to smoking in the 2002 poll. Several decades ago, far more men smoked than women. In 1954, for example, 57% of men smoked, compared to only 33% of women. By 1977, that gap had narrowed considerably and there is currently just a slight difference between the prevalence of smoking among men and women. This is one gender issue in which increased parity does not necessarily represent a positive achievement for women.
Greater Knowledge of Health Effects
Nonetheless, women tend to be more aware of the health problems associated with smoking than men tend to be. Slightly more women (83%) than men (77%) say that smoking is very harmful to adults who smoke. And far more women than men (63% versus 47%) feel that second-hand smoke is very harmful to adults.
From a policy standpoint, the keener awareness of health issues among women may translate into relatively greater support for measures to reduce smoking. Imposing hefty cigarette taxes is often cited as a way to decrease smoking levels, and women tend to support those measures in greater numbers than men. Only 36% of women think that current tobacco taxes are too high, compared to 44% of men who share this view. A slim majority of women also support legislation to raise cigarette taxes even higher. Fifty-one percent of women favor raising cigarette taxes in order to discourage smoking, compared to only 41% of men.
A greater awareness of the health consequences of smoking may not be translating directly into dramatically lower numbers of women lighting up, it may be promoting higher levels of support among females for legislative intervention to reduce smoking in the long term. To the extent that their support results in more aggressive legislative action that successfully reduces tobacco consumption, women may help to keep smoking rates down across the board.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 9-11, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.