Some years ago, after I had given a talk to a group of psychologists on weight concerns as a barrier to quitting smoking, an attractive young woman from the audience approached me to say that in the South American country where she had grown up (I can’t remember which one it was), she had never heard that smoking suppresses weight. Indeed, she hadn’t even put two and two together when she stopped smoking – and gained ten pounds! She was genuinely surprised at the content of my talk.
This woman held a doctorate in psychology. She was neither stupid nor ignorant. But somehow the tobacco companies had failed to find her and warn her, in their own special way, about the dire consequences of quitting. Given the efficiency with which they have managed to spread the word both at home and abroad, it’s hard to see how she could have escaped their notice! But because no one had managed to frame the issue as a choice between being beauty-queen gorgeous, movie-star sexy, and fashion-model slim, on the one hand, and not smoking, on the other, she just up and quit. As for the ten-pound weight gain, she had no idea it had anything to do with quitting, so she just sucked it up and kept moving. After all, “así es la vida” – such is life.
Even if it were possible, I’m certainly not advocating keeping women in the dark about this effect of smoking—any more than I’d favor not telling you that smoking ages your skin, hoarsens your voice, defeminizes your body shape, yellows your teeth, fouls your breath, and burns your clothes. But the tobacco companies go far beyond educating women about the weight-suppressing effects of their product, scaring them with the specter of out-of-control weight gain if they quit and pushing thinness as a cultural value. Somehow they never get to the other part of the message, the part about the other effects of smoking upon appearance, all of them undesirable.
Public health campaigns have done a great job of emphasizing the health hazards of smoking, but less has been said about its detrimental effects on appearance. Absent that information, you only know half the story – the half the tobacco industry wants you to hear.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.