Were women thinner in the 1950s and earlier because of smoking?

Click here for the 1930 ad image source and to see more in this collection of "keeps you slim" cigarette ads  from The Stanford School of Medicine.

In my book American Women Didn't Get Fat in the 1950s I debunked the claim that the reason women weren't obese in the 50s is because "they all smoked" as some have commented in response to my book (but apparently didn't read it.) In the Beta version of STAT: Reporting from the frontiers of health and medicine, Sharon Begley does a "gut check" of Fewer American Smoke. More Are Obese. Is There A Connection? What did her research reveal?

Given all the epidemiological evidence that quitting smoking causes weight gain, and the solid biological explanation of it, this paper’s finding of an 11- to 12-pound average gain is plausible. But it doesn’t prove that the decline in smoking was a significant contributor to America’s obesity epidemic. 

This isn't surprising, and I encourage you to read her article in full. As a former smoker who started at age 13, quit 19 years later, gained weight and then later lost and kept it off, I am comfortable disputing the claim from personal experience in addition to what my research and current statistical data reveals.

Let's cut the nonsense and go snopes on this folklore, OK?

Nicotine is an appetite suppressant.

Ok, but that's not the entire story. Nicotine isn't the only appetite suppressant nor is it the most effective. When we learn to have a healthy relationship with food and eating, we learn the difference between appetite and hunger. No one starves to death or even feels faint from not feeding their appetite

The majority of people who quit smoking gain weight.
As reported by Begely, any weight gain attributed to quitting smoking isn't enough to push the majority from a "normal" BMI to overweight to obese. 

Still not convinced? According to the paper, Consequences of smoking for body weight, body fat distribution, and insulin resistance published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008:

1) Heavy smokers are more likely to be obese than lighter smokers! 

2) Waist circumference or waist-to-hip ratio is higher in smokers than in nonsmokers! 

And what about the vintage 1930 ad I shared and the hundreds of others? While advertising influences consumer behavior, influence does not equate control, mandate or preclude independent thinking and decision-making.

As I reported in my book, the majority of women in America did not smoke in the 1950s!

The real issue for me is this: Why are so many invested in looking for evidence to support that there is really nothing we can do to lose weight unless we take up smoking, drugs or a starvation diet? By taking up that kind of logical fallacy then we can take "comfort" in defeat with the rationalization that by overeating and being overweight we're actually making sound decisions about what's best for us. The only thing to gain from that level of denial and self-deception is weight, and we stand to lose good health and the chance to learn to eat delicious nutritious food in moderation.


  1. So interesting. I live in an area of the country where there is a shockingly high number of smokers. Having come originally from an area where people were extremely health conscious it was hard to get used to. One thing I've observed is that the majority of heavy smokers I see are overweight. The exceptions? (1) Some men; (2) People in their early 20s. There are always going to a few people who can drink, smoke, eat whatever they want and stay rail thin while living to be 105. But, like 6' tall, size zero super models, these folks represent the exception, not the rule. What is the likelihood that someone who smokes heavily is going to be concerned with other aspects of health, like nutrition and wellness? Based on my observations, not so much... I'm guessing that, like everyone else, there comes a point for the smoker where age, metabolism, and unconscious lifestyle habits catch up with them, and take up residence along the waistline.

    1. I like the way you put that: "there comes a point for the smoker where age, metabolism, and unconscious lifestyle habits catch up with them, and take up residence along the waistline." Clever!

      There is no magic bullet, wand or cigarette that can wave away the need for a sustained and smart approach to self-care. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.


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