Women are different from men. Well, maybe you already knew that. But did you know that women smoke differently than men, and quit smoking differently than men?
Dr. Joseph Califano, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter, once said that even though he gained thirty pounds when he quit cigarettes, he did not then appreciate the importance to women of the link between smoking cessation and weight gain. As Dr. Cynthia Pomerleau , formerly the director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan and now Research Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychiatry, remarks in her new book, Life After Cigarettes: “If we’d had a woman HEW Secretary at that time, and she had stopped smoking, I’m sure a thirty-pound weight gain would have grabbed her attention!”
In her book, Dr. Pomerleau makes clear that the challenges of quitting smoking are even greater for women than they are for men. She is refreshingly frank: “Face it; There are definitely some plusses to smoking. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t have done it, and neither would anyone else.”
For women, one of the primary pluses is, and has always been, weight control. Pomerleau offers up the image of smoking ballerinas, women performing in a business where gaining two pounds can mean the loss of a job. Models, gymnasts, and ice skaters have also looked to cigarettes for help with weight control.
When women quit smoking, here are the facts of the matter: They will begin gaining weight almost the minute they quit—as much as three pounds in the first week—and will stabilize within three to six months. The average weight gain for women, writes Pomerleau, is ten pounds, with a quarter of female quitters gaining five pounds or less, and about a quarter gaining more than 15 pounds. And the longer women smoke, the harder it is to battle the weight gain when they eventually quit.
The problem, Pomerleau discovered when screening patients for her Nicotine Research Lab, was that 75 per cent of the women who wanted to quit smoking said that they were unwilling to gain more than five pounds while doing so. 40 per cent of the women responded that they were unwilling to gain ANY pounds in pursuit of tobacco abstinence.
In an email exchange with Addiction Inbox, Professor Pomerleau was kind enough to expand on her message.
When I asked her about reports that the dopamine D2 receptor gene has been implicated in both weight gain and smoking, she responded:
“In a laboratory study of food reward in smokers attempting to quit, Caryn Lerman and colleagues found that carriers of the DRD2 A1 minor allele exhibited significant increases in the rewarding value of food following abstinence from smoking, and that higher levels of food reward after quitting predicted a significant increase in weight by 6-month follow-up in participants receiving placebo. Both effects were attenuated in participants receiving bupropion, leading them to conclude that bupropion’s efficacy in attenuating abstinence-induced weight gain may be attributable, in part, to decreasing food reward. How well these findings will hold up to further scrutiny in larger samples remains to be seen.”
On smoking and bulimia: “As I’m sure you’re aware, the question of ‘self-medication’ is a complicated one, but it seems likely that some women ‘use’ nicotine to hold the symptoms of bulimia in check; when they quit, the underlying predisposition reemerges – which helps to explain why these women may be more prone to larger weight gain than other quitting smokers.”
On smoking as a weight management tool: “Using a variety of different measures, it’s probably safe to say that around 40% of women qualify as serious weight-control smokers. (The proportion is much lower in men.) By the way, though findings are mixed, these women don’t necessarily fare worse than other women when they quit, even if they do gain weight; the real challenge is bringing them to the point of even considering quitting.”
And finally, when I asked Professor Pomerleau about the role of primary care physicians in promoting smoking cessation, she noted that she was “concerned about possible attempts to downplay the amount of weight quitters can expect to gain or to overstate the ease with which it can be avoided – which can backfire and lead to relapse when the needle on the scale begins to creep up. I personally think it’s better to be realistic about the likelihood of weight gain after quitting and to concentrate on keeping it in the 5-10 pound range (approximately one unit of BMI and less than a dress size) – something that is in fact an achievable goal for most women.”