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International Women's Day - the health perspective

"Women are custodians of family health, caring for: children, ageing parents, and husbands and partners. Women also have a nurturing role in society, as teachers, nurses, long-term carers, in both formal and informal roles. Our healthcare, social services and schools are predominately staffed by women. It is important that they are treated equally when it comes so health care and that female specific diseases are managed, prevented and treated with the upmost care." Peggy Maguire, The European Institute of Women’s Health (EIWH)

The European Institute of Women’s Health (EIWH) is an NGO which promotes gender equity in health, medical research and social policies across all member states.

One of EIWH's priorities is the "Stop Smoking campaign in young girls and women" with a focus on pregnant women and smoking. The EIWH is currently in the process of completing the Policy Brief on "Smoking and Pregnancy" and this year International Women’s Day is an opportunity for EIWH to sound the alarm about the dangers of lung cancer for women caused by smoking.

The gender gap in smoking rates is narrowing - in 14 out of 26 EU countries girls out-smoke boys. Young girls are more likely to smoke than boys, particularly in Northern and Western European countries

In the 2002-2005 period more girls than boys smoked in Italy, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, France, Spain, Denmark, Ireland, the UK, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Greece, Portugal, and Slovenia. (Gendered Exposures and vulnerabilities, Policy Brief#3, Engender Project 2011(Part funded by EAHC)

The EIWH believe it is important to make women and the public health community more aware of the risks of developing lung cancer by: 

  • Creating effective smoking cessation programmes aimed at girls and young women  and making them  a priority in all EU countries
  • Promote an understanding in young women of the impact smoking has on their own health and that of their children. 
  • Develop anti-smoking campaigns with convincing messages to reach out to women during pre-natal care when they may be most receptive to advice.

Lung cancer is deadly, yet, highly preventable; a high percentage of lung cancer in women is smoking-related. Death in women from lung cancer has overtaken that of breast in Poland and the UK which is why it is important to educate young girls about the dangers of starting smoking.

Smoking is also more likely to cause cardiovascular disease (CVD) in women than in men.

In the EU, cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the top cause of death for women in each of the twenty-seven EU countries. The risk of CVD is especially high in women who start smoking before the age of 15. Some researchers speculate that women who smoke may become more easily addicted and may metabolise nicotine faster. This could be linked to hormones, but more research is needed to find out the reasons.

"As more and more young girls take up smoking, a rise of heart disease and stroke in women can be expected in the future unless we succeed in stopping young girls and women from smoking", says Peggy Maguire.

Smoking, including passive smoking is a risk factor that hits women harder. Not only do women have different or stronger CVD risk factors they also present different symptoms from men. Alarmingly, women themselves are often not aware that they are at risk of heart attack and stroke, two acute events that can result in death if timely, effective emergency treatment is not available.

As custodians of family health women are in a prime position to influence the health of their family. The EIWH believes health promotion and disease prevention programmes should be targeted specifically at women by age and socio economic status and increasing women’s access to appropriate, affordable, quality healthcare throughout their lives.

By reducing health inequalities, by integrating sex and gender-specific data into health policy, research design and healthcare planning, paying special attention to vulnerable and marginalised groups more deaths of women from chronic diseases could be prevented.

The information contained in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinion or the position of the European Commission. The European Commission does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this article.