Quitting Smoking: Women and Men May Do it Differently

Quitting  smoking is hard to do, and new studies suggest that what works for men may not always work for women, and vice versa.  Scientists believe that nicotine is more important for men, while other aspects of smoking seem to be more important for women.  If you are trying to quit, there’s new research that may help you choose the strategy that is most likely to work for you.

Many counselors, quit lines, and other experts recommend talking with your doctor about your interest in quitting or cutting back on the number of cigarettes you smoke. Your doctor will discuss different tools and medications, some of which require a prescription.  Nicotine patches and gum, for instance, can be purchased without a prescription.  These are often used to “step down” nicotine levels (see this article for more information),  but studies have suggested that these medications may work better for men than women, especially when it comes to quitting for good.[1]  Other types of medication to help you quit smoking, such as prescription drugs Chantix and Zyban, do not replace nicotine, but instead try to reduce the craving for it.  But these drugs are riskier and have more side effects than nicotine replacements (see this article for more information).

So, what are the other options, especially for women who may not be helped as much by nicotine patches or gum, and who don’t want to use prescription medicines with serious side effects?  Most experts suggest the following:

  1. Plan for success.  Start by picking a good time to quit.  Experts recommend choosing a time of year that is not particularly stressful, since quitting can take a lot of energy.  You might try setting a goal like a “smoke-free” date that is personally meaningful to you—maybe your or a loved one’s birthday, or a holiday.  Some people decide to save the money they would have spent on cigarettes for something special.  If watching your savings accumulate is helpful, consider putting a glass jar somewhere where you can easily see it and get re-inspired daily!  Interestingly, one study showed that women who try to quit during the first half of their monthly cycle (right after menstruation) are more likely to succeed.[2]
  2. Know yourself.  Quitting can be more successful if you try to identify the situations where you tend to smoke.  Do you have a particular time of day, or group of people that you enjoy smoking with? Anticipate these situations and come up with plans for how to handle them ahead of time.
  3. Find healthier replacements.   Some people find mint gum, lozenges, sunflower seeds or shelled nuts can help reduce their craving for a cigarette.   This may be especially important for women, who often need to replace the hand-to-mouth aspects of smoking as much or more than the nicotine itself.  Research suggests that certain foods might make cigarettes less appealing, such as healthy fruits and vegetables and spicy foods, which might curb the craving for a strong taste.[3]  Even brushing your teeth can help keep cravings at bay!
  4. Be good to your body.  Regular exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, yoga or tai chi, can help reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being.  Research suggests that these feel-good replacements may be especially useful for those who smoke to cope with stress.[4]  Lungs can quickly begin to heal once you quit smoking.  So breathe deeply and enjoy!
  5. Call in reinforcements.  Next time you feel a craving, try calling a friend, or consider joining a support group.  There are also online quitting tools such as TheExPlan, SmokeFree Women Quit Plan, QuitNet, and Freedom From Smoking Online.  And, you guessed it, there are now many “quitting apps” such as Smoke Out, tweetsmoking, Butt Out, Livestrong MyQuit Coach, and Smoke Break.   Apps can help you count the days since your last cigarette, calculate money saved, show your decreasing risks for diseases, and share your progress with others– and many of them are free. (For a detailed review, see this site). There are also many websites with useful information and links, compiled here by the Center for Disease Control.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

  1. Cepeda-Benito et al. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2004 Aug;72(4):712-22.
  2. Carpenter et al. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2008 Mar;17(2):293-301.
  3. McClernon et al. Nicotine Tob Res. 2007; 9 (4): 505-510.
  4. Williams et al. Addict Behav. 2011 Aug;36(8):894-7.