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Women with unhealthy BMIs who smoke and drink at two-fold higher risk of asthma: worldwide study

Toronto, April 6, 2016

By Kendra Stephenson

Dr. Jayadeep Patra
Dr. Jayadeep Patra

Underweight and obese women who also drank alcohol and smoked tobacco had a two-fold higher risk of being diagnosed with asthma than women with a healthy body mass index who did not drink or smoke, a St. Michael’s Hospital study found.

Women with low and high body mass indexes, or BMIs, who smoked and drank were also two to three times more likely to experience wheezing.

Asthma is a respiratory condition where spasms in the air pathways of the lungs cause difficulty breathing; usually triggered by an allergy or sensitivity in the environment. Asthma is a global health priority due to the extent and duration of disability, affecting 334 million people worldwide.

The study, published this week in BMJ Open Respiratory Research, is the first to assess the combined effects of BMI, smoking, drinking alcohol and solid fuel use on the risk of developing asthma. The research included data gathered between 2002 and 2004 from approximately 175,000 people aged 18 to 44, across 51 countries.

“Although individual physical and behavioral factors associated with asthma have been examined before, people are often exposed to multiple risk factors so it’s important we understand the combined impact,” said Dr. Jayadeep Patra, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the Centre for Global Health Research of St. Michael’s Hospital. “Our research found overall increased risk for wheezing and asthma in both men and women, but the magnitude of the combined effects from low or high BMI, smoking and drinking was consistently higher among women than men.”

Men showed higher prevalence of smoking and use of alcohol than women, but more women had unhealthy BMIs (underweight or obese) than men, highlighting the greater impact of female BMI as a risk factor.

Dr. Patra also noted there are significant variations in diagnosed asthma between countries, with increasing rates found in low-income and middle-income countries, potentially because of higher exposure to multiple risk factors, including the use of solid fuel.

In low and middle-income countries, solid fuels such as dung, charcoal or wood are used for cooking and are common in many households. These fuels are known to contribute to higher risk of developing respiratory and cardiovascular disease, compared to individuals who cook with gas or electric devices.

“In recent years, the rising health and economic burden of non-infectious respiratory diseases such as asthma have presented a significant challenge to public health,” said Dr. Patra. “Respiratory illnesses are complex, with multiple genetic, environmental and behavioural risk factors that vary across regions and affect particular populations in different ways.”

Dr. Patra said the combined effects of identified risk factors have not been sufficiently studied as of yet, with many questions still unanswered. For example, exposure to air pollution or second-hand smoke in lower income countries could contribute to higher rates of asthma and respiratory issues, but this information was not available during the current study. Also, countries with higher male smoking rates such as India or Bangladesh could effect on higher asthma and wheezing rates as a result of more exposure to second-hand smoke.

“The impact of these factors combined on wheezing symptoms and diagnosed asthma calls for greater emphasis on collaborative – rather than isolated – efforts to reduce their exposure,” said Dr. Patra. “The impact on the working population specifically is equally important, which points to another potential area of focus for future intervention strategies.”

This study was funded by the US National Institutes of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


This paper is an example of how St. Michael's Hospital is making Ontario Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Media contacts

For more information or to arrange an interview with Dr. Patra, please contact:

Kendra Stephenson
Communications Advisor - Media
416-864-5047
stephensonk@smh.ca