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Smoking: Truth and Consequences

Thinking about giving up cigarettes? If you’ve tried before without success, you may feel unsure about whether you can quit for good. You may also wonder how to prepare for such a big change. Start by learning everything you can about the health risks of smoking. Then consider how kicking the habit will affect your health and life. Finally, arm yourself with the latest techniques that can help smokers quit. There are now more aids to help smokers become ex-smokers than ever before.

Up in smoke

When you smoke, toxins are carried by your blood to every organ in your body. At the same time, the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke keeps red blood cells from carrying as much oxygen as normal. As a result, the cells throughout your body are deprived of the oxygen that they need to work properly, the American Lung Association (ALA) says.

Smoking increases the risk for these health problems:

  • Weakened bones and hip fractures in older women

  • Cancers of the blood, cervix, pancreas, stomach, kidneys, and bladder

  • Cataracts

  • Gum disease and tooth loss

  • Damage to the immune system and increased risk for infection

  • Fertility problems in women

  • Peptic ulcers

  • Pregnancy complications and premature birth

In the long run, cigarettes rob many smokers of life itself. People who smoke lose an average of 13 to 14 years from their life. Half of all lifetime smokers die early from smoking-related causes.

Positive effects

Despite these grim statistics, there’s good news, too. For one thing, it’s never too late to stub out that last cigarette. “Even if you’re a 70-year-old who has smoked for decades, you can reap benefits by quitting,” says Norman Edelman, M.D., spokesperson for the ALA. These benefits start as soon as you quit. Within 20 minutes of quitting, your heart rate drops. Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal. The longer you stay quit, the more benefits you’ll see. Within one year, your added risk for coronary heart disease will fall to half that of a smoker’s. Within 15 years, your risk is that of a nonsmoker.

If these health benefits don’t motivate you to quit, “then do it for those around you,” Dr. Edelman says. A 2006 Surgeon General’s report shows just how risky secondhand smoke can be. When adult nonsmokers are around cigarette smoke at home or work, their risk for lung cancer and heart disease rises by up to 30 percent. In babies and children, secondhand smoke can cause SIDS, respiratory problems, ear infections, and asthma attacks.

Most smokers want to quit

With all the evidence piling up, it’s little wonder why nearly 75 percent of all smokers say they want to quit. If you’re in that group, don’t be discouraged if you’ve tried to quit in the past and been unsuccessful. Most of today’s ex-smokers needed more than one try, too. Look at your past attempts as learning experiences. “Think about what made you go back to smoking last time and think about what you will do this time instead of smoking,” says Cathy Melvin, Ph.D., M.P.H. She's director of Smoke-Free Families, a national program that studies ways to help women quit smoking before, during and after pregnancy. “You learn something from each quit attempt that helps you do better on the next one.”

To quit for keeps this time, know your enemy. The nicotine in tobacco is very addictive. When you try to quit, the lack of nicotine can cause withdrawal symptoms:

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

  • Depression

  • Increased appetite

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Irritability, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating

  • Strong urges to smoke

Physically, your body is reacting to the lack of nicotine. Psychologically, your mind is struggling to give up the habit of smoking. Quit-smoking programs that work best combine medication with counseling and support. This combination can double your chances of quitting for good.

Prescription for change

Nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT) helps many people quit smoking. NRT gives you nicotine without the other harmful parts of tobacco smoke. NRT allows you to focus on changing your behavior. You can then wean your body off the nicotine. Five types of NRT products are available. Nicotine gums, patches, and lozenges can be bought over the counter. Nicotine sprays and inhalers are available by prescription. If you’re pregnant, or if you have heart disease, be sure to talk with your doctor before using one of these products.

Two non-nicotine medications have also been shown to help smokers quit. Bupropion (Zyban) affects brain chemicals involved in the craving for nicotine. Varenicline (Chantix) acts on parts of the brain that are affected by nicotine. This cuts the pleasurable effects of smoking and reduces withdrawal symptoms. Talk with your doctor about the best option for you.

Also ask about counseling and support programs. These programs can advise you about the best quit method to fit your needs and can provide encouragement to stay quit. Aside from your doctor, other sources for referrals include your local hospital, health department, or the American Cancer Society.