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Is that right? Italians smoke more than Americans?

One reader commenting on yesterday's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column about differences in the way Italians and Americans seem to approach eating noted that Italy's lower obesity rates might be due to Italians' smoking more than we Americans do.

The same thought had occurred to me, and certainly I saw lots of people smoking during my recent brief trip to five Italian cities. But a look at tobacco-use data collected by the World Health Organization for 2006 (which I checked before writing the column) suggests that the comparison may not be so cut and dried.

Among Italian males ages 15 and older, 25 percent are "current" cigarette smokers, compared with 34 percent of U.S. men in that age group. But the data show Italian and U.S. women ages 15 and up running neck and neck at 19 percent.

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

The category of "daily" cigarette smokers includes 30 percent of Italian males and 20 percent of U.S. men; 16 percent of Italian women and 14 percent of U.S. women are daily cigarette smokers.

Sure, it's possible that those percentages have changed a bit since 2006. But they'd have had to have changed an awful lot to make a compelling case that the two nations' obesity rates are so vastly different (14.4 percent of Italian men and 13.7 percent of Italian women are obese, according to WHO data, versus 44.2 percent of U.S. men and 48.3 percent of U.S. women) because they smoke more over there.

Your thoughts?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chronic Conditions , Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness , Smoking  
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I noticed the same but have not looked at data or statistics. I went on a recent trip to Egypt and the resort we went to was packed with Italian tourists. They did smoke a lot, more than I usually see in the US. But there aren't rules against smoking in public in Egypt (maybe Italy too), so you see it more common that US malls, restaurants, etc.

Posted by: nourrd | July 23, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Two points that may explain the disparity between the observed and reported statistics:

(1) As the first poster mentioned, Europe does not generally have the same strict laws against smoking in public as we have in many places here in the US. As a result, you will likely notice more smokers in public in Europe than in similar settings in the US.

(2) Additionally, in the US we have attached a great stigma on smoking, so that it's possible that we do not see as many people lighting up in places where they would otherwise be allowed due to societal pressures and the stigma associated with being a smoker.

Posted by: MStreet1 | July 23, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The headline is:
"Italians smoke more", not "more Italians smoke".

The article's data had nothing to do with the headline.

Posted by: law1946 | July 23, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Italians walk more than us, that's why they weigh less than us!

Posted by: dickinsl | July 23, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Our sedentary lifestyle in the US is the key difference, not the inhalation of nicotine and tar...

Posted by: ozpunk | July 23, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Smoking and sedentary lifestyle are bad. Italy has a higher rate of death by cancer.

The Italians live a couple years longer than Americans. It's one indication they are healthier.

Why do we talk about numbers instead of vO2Max?

Posted by: TinMan2 | July 23, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

The trend that I noticed in "journalism" recently are articles like this. Just because there is a higher rate of smoking in a country does not mean that is the cause of those people being less fat.

This is sloppy use of logic.

ALL my friends and family have only given birth to boys. I am NOT the cause of all the people I know having boys.

Posted by: charley42 | July 23, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

It's not the question to be asking. This is that sort of useless area of science that encourages people to confuse causation and correlation of chosen statistics. There are too many other important variables (walking/diet/income) to just look at smoking and obesity rates in two countries and expect to know if smoking plays an important role in weight.

If you actually want to know, look at the metabolic rate of smokers and nonsmokers in similar environments. Or compare the metabolic rate of individuals before and after they quit smoking.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | July 23, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

** sedentary lifestyle **

** processed "foods" ** (esp. sugary / high on glycemic index)

those are the causes of American obesity.

both the headline and the premise of the article are completely misleading.

Posted by: wordwind | July 24, 2010 2:47 AM | Report abuse

does italy have as huge a population "bulge" of individuals born between '46 and '64? as a member of that age cohort i know how difficult it is for me to maintain the weight of my younger days though i still run 5 days a week and play tennis or racquetball at least once a wekk as well.

Posted by: george32 | July 24, 2010 3:21 AM | Report abuse

Well, George maybe you should take up smoking then!!! :D

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 24, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I smoked for over 35 years. I quit about 7 years ago, cold turkey, and haven't really noticed too much in the way of cravings. The thing is, I really LOVED smoking. When I pass a smoker today, the smell is just intoxicating.

I quit because I realized it was bad for me and my family, all non smokers. It makes sense to quit because finding places to smoke is getting harder all the time. I understand the cost of a carton of cigarettes is now around $40. Second mortgage anyone?

Posted by: mortified469 | July 24, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

About the "sedentary lifestyle" theory:

Soomeone studied African-American women in Chicago and women in an African country (I'm thinking Niger, but not sure). They went into the study with the theory the women in Africa were thinner because they expended more calories but the truth was the difference between the groups of women was not in expenditure of calories - expenditure of calories was similar - but in the consumption of calories. The choice of kinds and quantities of food were different: fresh fruits and vegetables versus processed food.

There are so many things I can cite.

Just take McDonald's for example. In the family I grew up in my parents went to a restaurant for dinner once in a while. To give the family cook - his wife, my mother - the night off while she was getting ready to go he got dinner for the children at McDonald's. The hamburgers more bun than burger with ketchup, mustard and chopped onion. The bags of fries were small, a handful of fries in each bag. The milk shakes filled us up. When they introduced the Big Mac I thought it was going to be a flop because the amount of food in it seemed way overdone. Who gets those hamburgers or those itsy-bitsy bags of fries at McDonald's today? They have upscaled us to large sandwiches, mayonnaise-based dressings, and multiple helpings of fries. Then, on top of that, they have tried to upscale us again - "Just say, 'Supersize me'" - apparently in ignorance of the double meaning in the expression.

The slabs of meat in grocery stores is another example. Some teaks are over a pound.

When I was a little boy soda was in 6-1/2 ounce bottles in machines everywhere. The largest bottles of soda in the stores were 16 ounces. The amount in the machines has gone up and up - 12 ounces, 16 ounces, 20 ounces. Two-liter bottles are everywhere in the stores.

The Big Gulp is a whole quart; the Team Gulp an entire gallon.

About Europe versus the US:

Coincidentally this week there were two young French men from a Paris-based software company in town to teach the use of the software at my company. Both are thin. One smokes. I don't know about the other but I don't think he smokes because he is too lively. While teaching he paused occasionally to sip eagerly from a straw in a large cup from the company cafeteria. Because soda in the company cafeteria is free I wondered whether it was Coke - but somehow I doubted it. It was water.

He avoids fast food although he travels constantly.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | July 24, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Thinner smokers == better looking corpses.

Please smokers, die quickly and in private. Don't subject your families to your death throes.

Posted by: frantaylor | July 24, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Europeans eat less and walk more. I just moved back to the US from Europe, and everything about us is different. It's hard to judge unless you see the difference in quick succession, particularly at restaurants.

Even if you buy the equivalent dish here, it's fattier, oilier, saltier, and a bigger portion. Everything in commercial food is filled with sauces and seasonings that make the food taste more strongly but add calories and salt and fat.

Commercial food is an industry, which is why Americans have to exercise so much if they want to be thin. Just cook at home.

Posted by: jakemd1 | July 24, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

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