Smoking's allure varies by gender, study says


Men and women have long had separate bathrooms and sports teams. But it may be what they really need is their own stop-smoking classes.

In a rare "real life" study conducted outside the laboratory, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that men and women smoked for different reasons. Both reached for cigarettes when angry or anxious -- but these urges were stronger for men. And only men used nicotine to combat sadness and exhaustion.

Women smoked more often when they were happy.

And smoking appeared to have an actual medicinal effect on men but not on women. It reduced anger and fatigue.

"We're talking shades of gray here," said Dr. Ralph Delfino, an epidemiologist at UCI's College of Medicine, during the American Thoracic Society's recent annual conference in San Diego. "But men probably smoke more to alter their moods and improve performance than women do. Women may have a greater tendency to smoke because of external cues, such as for social interaction."

The bottom line, said Delfino, is it is increasingly apparent that both genders use nicotine to regulate moods, emotions and personality traits. This has important implications for stop-smoking programs, which, for example, might want to add an anger-management component for men.

The research by the UCI team brings together two fascinating areas of investigation: the positive effects of nicotine and how addiction and pain perception differ in men and women.

Scientists are experimenting with natural nicotine and drugs that mimic nicotine to improve memory in Alzheimer's patients, calm hyperactive children and relieve anxiety disorders.

The growing evidence of nicotine's positive effects on the brain was bolstered in November when neuroscientists from Duke University released a study showing that nicotine-like drugs improved memory and learning in rats.

Scientists have disagreed about whether nicotine reduces sensitivity to pain. But when psychologist Larry Jamner, a lead investigator on the nicotine and emotion study, broke down results by gender, he saw definite differences. Nicotine increased tolerance in men who received electric shocks, but not in women.

In the emotion and nicotine study, the group used new methods to study smokers. Most past studies have been retrospective, meaning researchers asked smokers to fill out questionnaires about their smoking history. The UCI group conducted the research in "real time," requiring the 35 men and 25 women to keep diaries of their moods, their urges to smoke, and last cigarette every 20 minutes for two days. It looked at a total of 6,882 journal entries.

The UCI researchers study behavior, not the brain, so they don't study the underlying differences in men's and women's biological wiring. Or whether specific gender differences are a result of learning or hormones.

Since the UCI findings appear to contradict some previous studies, more research is probably needed, said Dr. Harry Lando, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, one of the leading smoking-research centers.

There's some evidence that women -- not men -- smoke to regulate negative moods like depression. And research 30 years ago dispelled the belief that certain personality types, like extroverts, are more likely to smoke.

But Delfino said the differences might be more subtle.

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