A half-century ago, the U.S. Surgeon General released the first report declaring that smoking causes lung cancer. It was a wake-up call to millions of adult Americans. After all, in l964, almost half of them smoked. Now, fifty years later, we’ve all heard about health risks associated with cigarettes and other tobacco products.
So smoking is no longer widespread in America and not much of a problem, right? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no. In fact, the odds are high that a friend or family member – maybe even you – still smokes.
As Surgeon General, Boris Lushniak, M.D., reported in the 32nd report on tobacco, about 42 million American adults continue to smoke – and despite progress made since the first Surgeon General’s report, smoking remains the single largest cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. It’s a global health problem, too. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that tobacco is expected to kill another one billion people in the 21st century unless smoking around the world is greatly reduced.
If you are a smoker, it’s time to face facts about what your habit is doing to your health – and even to the non-smoking members of the family. Already tried to quit and failed? That’s no reason to give up. You can beat cigarette addiction with the right help and the sooner you stop smoking, the sooner you’ll lower your risk for health problems, including some diseases newly linked to tobacco.
More Than a Lung Cancer Risk
Although the number of smokers has gone down in the U.S., deaths from disease caused in large part by tobacco use continue to rise. While almost 90% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking and secondhand smoke, more smokers age 35 and older die from heart disease than lung cancer – and smoking is often a factor.
“In addition to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, tobacco use is associated with emphysema, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), stroke, hypertension and peripheral arterial disease, “ Lovoria B. Williams, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing at Georgia Regents University, tells Synergy. “Additionally, 92% of oral cancers are related to tobacco use.”
In all, the report by the Surgeon General says 13 cancers, including liver and colorectal malignancies, are now linked to smoking and secondhand smoke. The report also pointed out new findings connecting smoking with common ailments such as diabetes, arthritis, ectopic pregnancies, impaired immune function, macular degeneration, and impotence. Moreover, even people who don’t smoke but are exposed to secondhand smoke have a 20%-30% increased risk of a stroke.
In addition, a study by scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle has revealed that a history of smoking significantly increases the risk of the most common form of breast cancer, estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer, for young women. The research, published in the journal Cancer, found that women between the ages of 20 and 44 with a significant history of smoking have a 60% higher chance of being diagnosed with ER-positive breast cancer compared with their non-smoking counterparts.
Why Are You Still Smoking?
It’s clear that smoking is a huge but avoidable health risk. So, if you are a smoker, why are you still puffing away? If you are young and assume you can quit whenever your want – before your health suffers and many years pass – think again. “Although the relationship between smoking and negative health outcomes is strong and clear, young people continue to smoke. Additionally, the rate of smokeless tobacco is increasing among young males. Young people still believe that they are invincible and that they won’t get addicted,” Dr. Williams tells Synergy. “But they do.”
“Nicotine is used to self-medicate withdrawal symptoms and used for pleasure, enhanced performance, and mood regulation. It is very addictive; the half-life of nicotine is only 2 hours. This along with its rapid clearance from the central nervous system results in withdrawal symptoms occurring quickly. Typical withdrawal symptoms include four or more of the following: depressed mood; insomnia; irritability, frustration, or anger; anxiety; difficulty concentrating; restlessness or impatience; decreased heart rate; and increased appetite or weight gain,” Dr. Williams says.
“Withdrawal symptoms, combined with the craving for tobacco, result in relapses that reinforce the reward and satisfaction from nicotine – starting the addiction cycle over again. Hence, the cycle of nicotine addiction becomes a chronic, relapsing condition.” Older folks who have been smoking for years often assume the damage has been done. But, even if you’ve smoked for decades, Dr. Williams reports there’s good news about your health once you kick the habit.
“It’s never too late to quit smoking and the health benefits begin immediately. For instance, within minutes of quitting the blood pressure decreases and oxygen level increases; within months respiratory infections decrease, within one year coronary artery disease risk reduces to one-half; after five years, stroke risk is reduced to that of a non-smoker and after 10 years lung cancer death is similar to a non-smoker,” she explains.
If you’ve switched from regular smoke-producing cigarettes to e-cigarettes, (electronic cigarettes that deliver nicotine through a vapor delivery), don’t assume you’ve found a healthier alternative. “E-cigarettes are not safe,” Dr. Williams warns. “More evidence is needed regarding the potential health risks of E-cigarettes. But we know the vapor emitted from them includes toxins and carcinogens. “
Find the Tools You Need to Stop Smoking
While some people are able to stop on their own, it’s not easy. If you’ve tried to quit “cold turkey” and failed, what should you try next? Dr. Williams explains there are three components to nicotine addiction: emotional (social aspects, stress reduction), physiological (withdrawal symptoms) and behavioral (habit, “hand to mouth” activity). To work out the best strategy for you, she advises contacting your health care provider as soon as you decide to quit smoking.
“There are multiple methods to quit smoking besides ‘cold turkey.’ It takes most people numerous attempts before they successfully quit, but each time they attempt to quit, they learn something that makes them that much closer to being successful, “ Dr. Williams tells Synergy. “Treatment is individualized but usually includes pharmacotherapy combined with individual or group-based behavioral therapy.”
Can quitting with a buddy and seeking the support of a friend, family or spouse help? “Most definitely, social support improves cessation outcomes. A support person will encourage you to hang in there when you are having cravings; they will tell you how good you look and smell, they will celebrate each smoke-free day with you and will remind you of your reasons for quitting when you are tempted to relapse,” Dr. Williams says. “Remember that quitting smoking is the best thing that an individual can do for their health and the health of those around them.”
Resources to Help You Quit for Good:
- The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that in order to have the best chance of giving up smoking, you need to know what you’re up against, what your options are, and where to go for help. To that end, the ACS has a free and extensive on-line “Guide to Quitting Smoking“. You’ll find information on all aspects of smoking cessation – from how much money you’ll save and how your health will benefit, to the pros and cons of nicotine replacement therapy and prescription medications. There are also self-help strategies to help with both the physical and mental aspects of addiction to tobacco products.
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers an extensive list of free resources to help you find information and support to quit smoking.
- The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also offers free resources: 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848). The NCI’s trained counselors are available to provide information and help with quitting smoking, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., EST.
- For help from your state’s smoking “quit line”: 1-800- QUIT-NOW (1-800- 784-8669). Calling this toll-free number will connect you directly to your state quit line. All states have quitlines with trained coaches who provide information and help with smoking cessation. Specific services and hours of operation vary from state to state.