Teenage girl smokers risk eating disorders

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TEENAGE GIRLS who use cigarettes as a slimming aid are more likely to develop eating disorders, a new study has found.

Girls are "trading pounds off their weight for years off their lives," warned researchers. They said that while teenage smokers on average lost a stone in weight, they were also twice as likely to be bulimic.

The study of 3,000 girls found that those who smoked were 30 per cent more likely to be overweight and prone to eat too much. Losing weight was given as the main reason for taking up the habit; a quarter said that smoking made them feel less hungry.

The majority of smokers - whatever their weight - also wanted to be considerably thinner than they actually were, and in a further attempt to keep their weight down, were twice as likely to vomit frequently after overeating.

The Cancer Research Campaign study, published today in the BMA's Postgraduate Medical Journal, assessed 1,936 girls in London and 832 girls in Ottawa, Canada, aged 11 to 18.

The study showed about 20 per cent of all the girls smoked and the habit was strongest among 15 and 16-year-olds, a quarter of whom were smokers in both London and Ottawa.

Girls were up to three times more likely to take up smoking after starting their periods, when normal changes in body shape often lead to worries about weight.

Nearly one-third of all the girls interviewed thought they would put on weight and eat more if they quit smoking. Those who drank alcohol were also more likely to smoke.

The smokers reported weight losses of a stone or more since puberty which they associated with smoking. "[The girls] often believe [smoking] will help them in their goal of weight control and weight loss," said the chief researcher Professor Arthur Crisp, from St George's Hospital Medical School, London. "The evidence is that it works."

"A great number of perfectly ordinary schoolgirls are showing they are unhappy with how they look."

More worrying was the fact that girls were using cigarettes to control their their weight and were trading the pounds "for years off their life," he added.

"This study portrays a desperately sad picture of teenage girls' self- image and their unsuccessful attempts to attain an idealised, lower weight," said Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC. "But smoking is not the way to do it."

Banning tobacco advertising would benefit, but families should also help, convincing girls that changes of shape are natural after puberty, he said.

The anti-smoking group Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) called on the tobacco industry to halt youth-orientated marketing immediately. "For some teenage girls smoking has more in common with desperate conditions such as anorexia and bulimia than it does with girl power," said director Clive Bates. "The tragedy of smoking is that the outward defiant and independent face of the young smoker often conceals terrible teenage anxiety and self- loathing."