Cigarette Smoking for Weight Loss is a practice dating to early knowledge of nicotine as an appetite suppressant. Tobacco use was associated with appetite suppression among pre-Columbian indigenous Americans, and old world Europeans. For decades, tobacco companies have employed these connections between slimness and smoking in their advertisements, mainly in brands and advertisements targeting women and related body image issues. Culturally, the links between smoking cigarettes and controlling weight run deep. While it is unclear how many people begin or continue smoking because of weight concerns, research reveals that white female adolescents with established weight-related anxieties are particularly prone to initiate smoking.
Cultural connections between cigarettes and being thin are reinforced through mass media depictions of high levels of cigarette consumption among thin public figures, such as persons in the fashion industry.
Basic, though generally not extensive knowledge of nicotine’s effects upon the appetite also contributes to people smoking for weight control purposes. However, studies have not shown that people smoke exclusively to maintain or lose weight.
The Science of Nicotine-Related Appetite Suppression and Weight Control
Though smoking is widely discouraged by public health professionals for its countless negative health consequences, nicotine has been proven to be an appetite suppressant. Nicotine reduces appetite and can influence an individual’s eating habits. A study on nicotine’s effects on appetite demonstrated that “net effects of nicotine include elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and gastric motility while eliciting a sustained decreased in food intake. Autonomic, sensory, and enteric neurons each constitute potentially important loci for nicotine-mediated changes in feeding behavior.” Thus the cultural associations between smoking and weight control in part reflect the body’s physiological reactions to nicotine.
Nicotine gum has similar effects to cigarettes in terms of appetite suppression, and there are some people who do not smoke, but use nicotine gum for the purpose of weight control or weight loss.
Nicotine also can lower insulin levels in a person’s bloodstream, which can reduce cravings for sugary foods. Furthermore, “nicotine-triggered effects of adrenaline on the stomach’s musculature” lead to temporary feelings of subsided hunger. Other studies have shown that smokers expend more calories while engaged in activity, which echo conclusions that smokers experience heightened metabolic rates.
There is controversy concerning whether smokers are actually thinner than nonsmokers. Some studies have shown that smokers—including long term and current smokers—weigh less than nonsmokers, and gain less weight over time. Conversely, certain longitudinal studies have not shown correlation between weight loss and smoking at least among young persons. Accordingly, while the connection between nicotine and appetite suppression, as well as other physiological responses to nicotine consumption, has been established, whether these chemical and biological reactions translate to smokers being thinner than nonsmokers (at least concerning certain age groups), is still debated. Age may act as a compounding factor in some of these studies. Essentially, a causal relationship has not been explicitly established between physiological effects of nicotine and epidemiological findings about weight among smokers and nonsmokers.
Smoking and Perceptions of Weight Control among Adolescents
While most adults do not smoke for weight control, studies have shown that associations between tobacco use, being thin and desire for weight control do influence adolescents in terms of smoking behavior. Research demonstrates that adolescent girls that strongly value being thin are more likely to initiate smoking. Additionally, girls already engaged in risky behavior for weight control are at increased odds to begin smoking as well.
Further research needs to examine trends in ethnicity concerning women and smoking for weight control. So far, studies have shown that young white women may be more prone to use cigarettes to manage their weight. Advertisements for particular brands and types of cigarettes seem target this demographic accordingly.
Several studies have been conducted over the past decade examining this issue in depth. While it has generally been found that white females are more apt to smoke to lose weight, one study found that smoking to lose or control weight is not limited to white females, but is prevalent across racial and gender boundaries. Within all racial groups, it was found that weight concerns and negative body perceptions were a significant factor in an adolescent's decision to smoke. However, it should be noted that the relationship between weight and smoking amongst young men was only statistically significant in white or mixed race groups.
In the past, studies have shown that adolescent girls do consider weight loss or weight control to be one of the positive values of smoking. Overall, young women and girls concerned about weight control, particularly those already using unhealthy weight control techniques, are at a higher risk of smoking.
Weight gain as a side effect of smoking cessation remains a major aspect of smoking and weight control. People can be discouraged by weight gain experienced while quitting smoking. Weight gain is a common experience during smoking cessation, with roughly 75% of smokers gaining weight after quitting. As nicotine is an appetite suppressant and smokers expend more energy, weight gain due to smoking cessation is generally attributed to increased caloric consumption and a slowed metabolic rate.
Weight gain can be a deterrent in the smoking cessation process, even if many smokers did not smoke for weight control purposes. Those in the process of quitting smoking are recommended to follow a healthy diet and to exercise regularly. Most quitting advice encourages people to not be discouraged should they experience weight gain while quitting smoking, as the health benefits of quitting almost always exceed the costs of weight gain. Studies have shown that weight gain during the smoking cessation process is often lost eventually through diet and exercise.
Some studies show that smokers do generally weigh less than nonsmokers, with other research proving that nicotine increases metabolic rate and suppresses appetite. However, the health costs of smoking vastly outweigh this supposed benefit of smoking.
As weight-related advertising has generally focused on women, research has shown that young women are particularly an at-risk population for smoking for weight control purposes, and more research needs to focus on gender and ethnic trends concerning adolescents and smoking, although tobacco companies are starting to aim advertisements at the gay community.
However, the reasons for which people smoke are ostensibly complex, and can rarely be attributed to just a desire to control or reduce body weight. That said, the legacy of the association between being thin and smoking has nevertheless impacted 20th century culture in countless ways.