Girls who think they are overweight much more likely to smoke, study suggests

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Tuesday, September 03, 2002

(CP Picture Archive)

Teenage girls who think they are overweight are much more likely to smoke than those who are comfortable with their bodies, a new study suggests. (CP Picture Archive)

TORONTO (CP) - Teenage girls who think they are overweight are much more likely to smoke than those who are comfortable with their bodies, a new study shows. Coming at a time when the incidence of obesity is on the rise and lung cancer is still the No. 1 cancer killer among Canadian women, the findings will ring alarm bells.

Researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that adolescent girls who felt they were fat were 50 per cent more likely to smoke than girls who felt their weight was healthy or who believed they were too thin.

"We've suspected this for some time. But what's really valuable is getting a sense of the degree of risk. I mean, 50 per cent. That was quite astounding to me. I had no idea," said Cheryl Moyer, director of cancer control programs for the Canadian Cancer Society.

Likewise, girls who had taken measures to control their weight - exercised, skipped meals, taken diet pills, vomited after eating - were more likely to smoke than girls who had not, according to the study, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

The study, released Tuesday, is based on the responses of about 2,000 girls and boys to the 1997 version of the Ontario Student Drug Use Survey. The survey, which is conducted every two years, questions students in Grades 7, 9, 11 and 13 from across Ontario about their use of illicit drugs, tobacco products and alcohol. It is conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

The study found that teenage boys who felt they were overweight - and there were about half as many of them as there were girls - were not more likely to smoke than boys who were satisfied with their weights.

There was one exception. Boys who admitted to having skipped meals to control their weight were more likely to smoke than boys who didn't skip meals.

The 1997 version of the survey was the first to ask participants about their perceptions of their weight and whether they take any measures to try to control it, said lead author Anne-Luise Winter, a research co-ordinator at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

The questionnaire did not ask students if they took up smoking as a deliberate means of weight control. But it is well known among experts in the eating disorder field that many people start smoking because they believe it will help them lose or control their weight.

Merryl Bear, director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, wasn't surprised by the findings. Teens are more concerned about the here and now - fitting in with the right crowd, looking good in a prom dress - than about long-term ramifications of smoking such as the risk of developing lung cancer or emphysema, she said.

"First of all, teenagers . . . think bad things happen to other people," Bear said. "So smoking and the bad things that happen to smokers happen to someone else."

Most also feel they'll be able to quit when they wish, said Moyer, who admitted she began smoking as a weight control measure while at university.

"Almost any teen that's experimenting with tobacco will say: 'Well I intend to quit when I leave high school,' " she said. "They all have the intention to quit and they don't realize how addictive it is."

Winter said the take-away message from the study is that public health officials have to start targeting anti-smoking campaigns at girls before they go through puberty.

Girls often gain weight as their bodies adapt to puberty, which comes around an age where they are likely experimenting with smoking, she said.

"So we really have to catch them early and we can't really afford to wait till they're in high school . . . (by which point) they're veterans of smoking and a variety of weight control behaviours."

Moyer said the study also underscores the need to take a multi-faceted approach to smoking cessation messages directed at young girls. The message can't just be that smoking can kill you; it has to address why girls are drawn to start smoking in the first place.

© Copyright  2002 The Canadian Press


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