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Women smokers, special risks

As far as the “gentler sex” is concerned, researchers say women have special reasons all their own to stub out a smoking habit.

Fertility and pregnancy. Research suggests that smoking, including exposure to secondhand smoke, may make it harder for women to become pregnant. In one study, women smokers were 23 percent less likely to conceive within six months and 54 percent less likely to conceive within a year than nonsmokers. Women exposed to secondhand smoke were 14 percent to 17 percent less likely to become pregnant after six months to a year. As for smoking while pregnant, researchers found it increases the risk of low birth weight and language problems and can also lead to dangerous genetic mutations that increase the risk of cancer in children. Infants of mothers who smoked during pregnancy also appear to be at higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome.

Heart disease. Smoking is the most dangerous risk factor for heart disease, which surpasses even cancer as the leading killer of women. A woman who smokes is two to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than a nonsmoking woman, her risk rising with the number of cigarettes she smokes each day. What’s more, studies suggest that premenopausal women who smoke and take birth control pills dramatically increase their risk of cardiovascular disease. A tobacco habit also increases a woman’s stroke risk.

Cancer. Lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among women—and smoking is the primary culprit. Women should also be aware of a link between tobacco use and cervical cancer. In addition, smoking is linked to many other cancers, including that of the esophagus, the mouth and the head and neck.

Other concerns. Women who smoke enter menopause two years earlier than nonsmokers, on average. The habit also contributes to osteoporosis.

It’s difficult to break a bad habit when the health threats seem remote. If that’s the case with you, focus on the more immediate consequences of smoking: bad breath, wrinkles and smelly hair and clothing. If you have children, reflect on the example you may be setting for them, and consider the ill health effects of secondhand smoke on your little ones, which may include asthma, bronchitis and ear infections.