ALEXANDRA FORTIER has tried to butt out three or four times, but keeps going back to what is now her duMaurier kingsize, half-pack-a-day habit. Fortier quit smoking while on summer vacation last year, but succumbed when she got back home to Quebec City and saw friends who still lit up. Last month, she cut back to one or two cigarettes a day, but then things at home hit a rough patch. She craved the calming effect of the smoke penetrating deep into her lungs.
“Smoking cigarettes for me is really relaxing,” says Fortier. Sure, she knows that smoking kills—who doesn’t? “You think about it,” she says of the health risk, “and it affects you, but I love smoking so much.” Fortier is 15 years old. She started when she was 13.
Teenage girls make statisticians nervous. While smoking has declined steadily in Canada since 1965, the trend hasn’t held true lately for girls and younger women. Their percentages have dropped over the years, but not as steeply as for males, and the numbers have flatlined in recent years, holding steady at about 23 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19, and 30 per cent of women 20 to 24. Today, more girls than boys aged 15 to 17 smoke (19 per cent versus 17 per cent). It’s been a trend for the past five years, says Lorraine Greaves, executive director of the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. “There’s a lot to be concerned about,” she warns. “Even though these trends are new, and may be minor, they’re alarming in that they may be a preview of things to come.”
Obvious health risks include the threat of heart disease and various cancers. But recent studies also suggest smoking may adversely affect the development of breast cells during adolescence, says Greaves, which in turn may set up women for breast cancer.
While the anti-smoking message spreads, there are myriad explanations for why it seems less effective on young women. They may be more inclined than males their age to respond to sales pitches from the tobacco industry, says Paul McDonald, professor of health studies at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Or, as more young women find jobs, they’re no longer as sensitive to higher cigarette prices as they once were. It might be the stress of career development. Smoking contributes to a young woman’s identity formation, adds Greaves, including “using it as a way to resist dominant culture and domination, and as a way to look like rebels.” Smoking, in fact, can be an indicator of other risk behaviour. “We know that girls who smoke,” says Greaves, “are more likely to be sexually active and drink; they’re more likely to do a whole lot of things that are not ‘boring’ in the teen subculture.”
SMOKED OUT Lung cancer and respiratory diseases take by far their biggest toll in the Territories, with Nunavut especially recording death rates startlingly above the national average
Upping the challenge to health officials, new research contradicts the notion that becoming addicted is a gradual process. The older thinking was that it took maybe a year or two. “Not so,” warns Greaves. “Those, I think, were misleading assumptions.” It is now thought that a cigarette addiction can be formed in six weeks, maybe less.
On top of that, quitting is more difficult for women than men. At all ages, women tend to be more sensitive to nicotine and require less of a dose, says McDonald. They are more prone to depression after they quit, and are likely to report a greater number of— and more severe—withdrawal symptoms.
Fortier started smoking when she arrived at Saint Patrick’s High School. “I just started taking puffs,” she recalls. “I started smoking because everyone else did—I thought it was cool, you know?” She can tell you cigarettes cause lung cancer, that second-hand smoke causes cancer in others, and on and on. “When I hear about all those diseases,” says Fortier, “I’m like, ‘Well, everyone’s going to die some day.’ ” Sadly, some sooner than others.
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