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Fact Sheet - Women and Smoking

NSW Campaign Quit Fact Sheet 9



While the prevalence of smoking amongst women is still below that for males, the difference between the two groups has considerably narrowed in recent years. This is because men's smoking rates have declined by more than 50% since 1945 (down from 72% to the present rate of 32.1%).

Female smokers, on the other hand, appear to have been less influenced by anti-smoking messages. Over the same period, rates of smoking for women have remained fairly static, increasing from 26% in 1945 to 29% in 1971, and declining only slightly (to 25%) in the period since.


The statistics from 1989-90 indicate that 24.7% of adult Australian women smoke.

  • The trend is for earlier uptake, with 22.3% of female smokers and ex-smokers aged 18 - 24 years having started before they were 15 years old. By comparison of women smokers aged 25+ only 11.4% started before they were 15 and for those aged 45+, the percentage is smaller still - 6.6%.

  • For adolescents aged 14 - 17 up to 7% more females than males now smoke. In the 18 - 24 years age bracket, the proportion of female smokers is the same as males (36%).

  • The percentage of women who have never smoked decreased between 1974 and 1986 (down from 60.6% to 54.3%) but increased again to 57.4% in 1989. Currently there are more women who have never smoked than men.

  • The percentage of women who have quit smoking, on the other hand, is lower than for men - 17.8% compared with 28.8% - but has increased since 1977, when only 10% of women were ex-smokers.

  • The number of women who have tried to stop is much higher - 71.4% but still less than for men (74%). Women are most likely to attempt quitting between 25 and 34 years.


Figures available form several small studies indicate that the prevalence of smoking in Aboriginal women is much higher than in the non-Aboriginal population. Figures of between 60 and 75% have been quoted consistently in these studies. As with the non-Aboriginal population, the trend amongst the Aboriginal population also appears to be towards more younger women taking up smoking. (For further information, see Fact Sheet on Aboriginal Smoking).


Of overseas-born women, those women born in the United Kingdom had the highest levels of smoking (32%) compared with Southern European (20%) and Asian-born women (21%).


Some people argue that there is an epidemic of smoking amongst young women in this country. A comparison of data obtained by Hill et al in 1986 and 1989 respectively shows that 31.1% of 16 - 19 year old women were smoking in 1989 as opposed to 27.5% in 1986. Moreover, in 1989 37.7% of the 20 - 24 year olds were smoking (i.e. those who were aged between 16 - 19 years old in 1986). However, these figures should be viewed in light of the fact that overall, there are still more men than women who smoke.


Women in all age groups smoke less cigarettes per day than men and tend to smoke cigarettes with lower tar and nicotine content:

  • of women smokers smoke an average of 20 cigarettes or less each day compared with 58.4% of males.

  • Although younger women are more likely to smoke than older women, those that do usually do not smoke as heavily. Women 18 - 24 smoke an average less than 15/day compared with an average of 19/day for women 35 - 64.

  • The highest consumption of cigarettes occurs in women aged 35 - 44, where 35.9% smoke more than 20 cigarettes per day.

  • Women usually smoke cigarettes with lower tar and nicotine levels than men. 54.3% reported usually smoking cigarettes with a tar content of less than 10mg, compared with 37.3% of males.


Marital status

  • The ABS report on Women in Australia found that 50% of single mothers smoke. This is double the national average for women.

  • of these women smoke cigarettes with tar content of 14mg or more.

  • The highest proportion of ex-smokers, according to the report, were married women with or without children.


ABS statistics indicate that employment status does ot have as great an impact on women's smoking as it does for men:

  • There is little difference in smoking between men and women who are employed full-time. For women employed full-time, 28.9% smoke compared with 31.6% of men.

  • A smaller proportion of women who are employed part-time smoke (23.8% compared with 37.3% of men).

  • The difference was greatest for those not employed and not retired (i.e. unemployed) where 29.2% of women smoked compared with 46.8% of men.

  • For women who classified themselves as occupied with home duties, only 22.1% smoked.

Occupational status

When examined by occupational status, it becomes clear that the anti-smoking message is having the greatest effect on women in better jobs:


The above graph shows the radical decline in smoking amongst "upper whit collar women", the more modest decline in "lower white" and upper blue" and a big increase in smoking for "lower blue collar workers".


There is a distinct relationship between the level of education attained and the prevalence of smoking. Two surveys (1986 Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria and 1983 National Heart Foundation Survey) found almost no difference in smoking prevalence between tertiary educated males (20.7%) and females (21.8%).

In general terms, the prevalence of smoking diminishes as educational levels increase. Results of the 1985 Survey of Social Issues showed a maximum smoking level of 38% among persons with only 3 - 5 years secondary education and a minimum smoking level of about 22% among tertiary graduates.


Tobacco smoking has been described by the World Health Organisation as the single greatest cause of disease in the developed world. Health risks associated with smoking include lung and other cancers, respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis, heart disease and thrombosis. It has been estimated that tobacco smoking was responsible for 18,165 deaths in Australia in 1987 - more than 15% of all deaths.

Lungs cancer in particular was the second leading cause of death from cancer for women in 1991. In the past 20 years, lung cancer rates in Australian women have more than doubled, from 8:100,000 in 1971 to 20:100,000 in 1991. The ABS report on women's health predicts that within the next six years, lung cancer will overtake breast cancer (which kills 29:100,000 Australian women) as the leading cause of death in women.

Lung cancer aside, the incidence of other respiratory diseases has remained relatively unchanged for women since the 1970s. This is consistent with the fact that smoking rates for women have remained fairly stable. Smoking is also a risk factor for cerebrovascular disease (stroke), which remains on e of the leading causes of death in women (81 deaths per 100,000 women). Smoking 1 - 14 cigarettes per day more than doubles the risk of stroke in women, and for those who smoke 25 or more per day, the risk is nearly four times that of a non-smoker.

Another important aspect of smoking for women is its effect on fertility and reproduction. This is covered in Quit Fact Sheet No. 8.

    The Non-Smokers' Movement of Australia Inc, Box K860, Haymarket NSW 1240.  
This page was last updated on 21st April, 2006,
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