According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) smoking cigarettes causes harm to almost every organ in the body and reduces a person’s overall health. The CDC also says that quitting smoking reduces the risk for related diseases and actually adds years to a person’s life. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. The best way to avoid the harm that smoking causes is to never start. If it’s too late not to start, quitting is the next best thing, but it is also challenging. Nicotine is highly addictive and giving it up requires willpower, support, and sometimes medical treatment.
The Facts about Smoking
No other preventable cause of death is greater in the U.S. than smoking cigarettes. Smoking is the root cause of over 480,000 American deaths each year, accounting for one out of every five, or 20 percent, of deaths. Smoking deaths number more than the deaths caused by alcohol, illegal drugs, HIV, guns, and motor vehicle accidents all put together. Cigarettes have killed ten times more people prematurely than all of the wars the U.S. has fought in.
Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of dying from any cause and that risk has increased over the last 50 years, possibly because of more toxic additives in cigarettes now than in the past. Ninety percent of lung cancer deaths in the U.S. are attributed to smoking, while 80 percent of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder can be blamed on cigarettes.
How Smoking Affects Health
Smoking cigarettes adversely impacts nearly every system and organ in the body, and it increases the risk of several serious illnesses. Smoking increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease by two to four times and increases the risk of having a stroke by the same amount. Smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer 25 times for men and by nearly 26 times for women.
Smoking has a big impact on the respiratory system. It damages the airways and the alveoli, the small air sacs in the lungs. Smoking causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. It causes nearly 90 percent of cases of lung cancer and triggers and worsens asthma. Smoking also impacts the vascular system, causing an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Smoking contributes to the formation of clots and thickens and narrows blood vessels causing high blood pressure.
Smoking is also a leading cause of cancer and not just lung cancer. Smoking can cause or contribute to the development of cancers of the blood, cervix, kidneys, liver, stomach, trachea, esophagus, bladder, colon, larynx, pancreas, bronchus, mouth, and oropharynx. Smoking increases the risk of dying in cancer patients and cancer survivors. The CDC estimates that without smoking, one third of cancer deaths in the U.S. would be prevented.
Other health risks associated with smoking include infertility, osteoporosis and broken bones, gum disease and tooth loss, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, reduced immune system function, and rheumatoid arthritis. In pregnant women, smoking increases the risk of a stillbirth, preterm delivery, ectopic pregnancies, facial birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome, and low birth weight.
The Truth about Cigarette Alternatives
Some people believe that alternatives to smoking cigarettes are not as harmful or risk-free. The truth, though, is that these alternatives can be just as bad for health as traditional cigarettes. So-called natural cigarettes or those with fewer additives are still very harmful to health and lead to an increased risk of premature death. Any product with tobacco contains nicotine, including hookah, cigars, and chewing tobacco, and that means they are harmful and highly addictive.
E-cigarettes have been touted as a safer way to get nicotine and as a way to help wean smokers off of real cigarettes. These are battery-powered devices that vaporize a nicotine-containing liquid. Instead of inhaling tobacco smoke, a person inhales the vapor. The safety and health effects of these devices are not yet fully understood, so while they may be useful in helping smokers quit, they are not considered safe or risk-free.
The Immediate and Long-Term Benefits of Quitting
Not smoking at all is the best way to prevent tobacco-related illnesses. For those who are already smokers, quitting is the best health decision a person can make. There are immediate and short-term health benefits of quitting, which kick in between hours and weeks after stopping smoking: heart rate decreases, levels of carbon monoxide in the blood drop, heart attack risk goes down, circulation improves, and lung function improves.
Over the long-term, up to a year and after quitting, not smoking reduces coughing and shortness of breath. Within a few years the risk of having a stroke drops and the risk of heart disease is halved. Cancer risks drop off as well. Within ten years of quitting, the risk of developing lung cancer is down to half that of a regular smoker. After 15 years cigarette-free, the risk of heart disease is back to normal.
The main, psychoactive compound in tobacco is nicotine. When you inhale cigarette smoke, nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream. From there it stimulates the adrenal glands, which begin to produce adrenaline, a hormone. This in turn stimulates the central nervous system, increases breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Nicotine also travels to the brain where it stimulates the release of a chemical messenger called dopamine, the same substance triggered by illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Dopamine is involved in the response of the brain to pleasurable stimuli. Dopamine acts like a pleasurable reward. When you smoke, you get this reward, and that makes you want to do it again. Over time, use of tobacco and nicotine makes actual changes to the brain that make it very difficult to stop using. If you try to stop, your body will react and you will experience withdrawal symptoms, like cravings, irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, depression, and trouble sleeping. These things together make nicotine an addictive substance.
How People Quit Smoking
A hallmark of how addictive nicotine is can be seen in how many people try and fail to quit. Everyone understands, to some degree, how damaging cigarettes are and yet smokers struggle to give them up. As much as 85 percent of people trying to quit will fail. Some people tackle quitting as a matter of willpower, going cold turkey and simply trying not to give in to the cravings. This is extremely difficult to do and often leads to failure, but there are tools, therapies, and even medications that can aid the process and increase the chances of success.
Relying on support, for instance, can be a powerful took in quitting smoking. If you want to quit, tell everyone you know and they will support you and hold you accountable. It also helps to have the support of others who are quitting. There are many support groups where smokers can gather to help each other quit.
Therapy is another great tool for quitting. Behavioral therapy and counseling, and even hypnosis therapy, can help you make better choices, change your behaviors, and reduce cravings for cigarettes. Nicotine replacement therapy may also help and you can talk to your doctor about it. This means replacing cigarettes with nicotine products like patches or gum. This can help you reduce your intake more slowly, which is easier than quitting cold turkey and will reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Medications for Treating Nicotine Addiction and Their Risks
In addition to nicotine replacement products, many of which are available over the counter, there are a couple of prescription medications for quitting that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Bupropion, brand name Zyban, and varenicline, brand name Chantix, are two non-nicotine medications that can be prescribed for quitting smoking. They work by blocking the effects of nicotine, so that if you do smoke it will not have the desired effect. They also help reduce withdrawal symptoms.
As with any medication, bupropion and varenicline may have positive benefits, but they also come with risks. Both of these are FDA-approved, but also carry very strong warnings about possible adverse events. These medications may cause mental health and mood side effects including agitation, depression, hostility, violence, and suicidal thoughts. The risks are higher in patients with existing mental illness.
These side effects can be very serious and may occur at any time during use of the medication or after stopping it. The FDA also states that for most people the risk of developing these serious side effects is worth the benefits of the drugs helping with quitting. This is because there are such strong health benefits associated with stopping smoking.
Smoking cigarettes, or using any tobacco product, comes with serious health consequences. The best way to prevent the health impacts of smoking is to never start smoking, but for those who already have become addicted, quitting is the single most impactful health move a person can make. The benefits of quitting are huge and there are tools that can help with this big challenge. From support groups and therapy to nicotine replacement and medications, you have ways to quit smoking. Understand the risks of using medications and talk to your doctor so that you can make the best choice about how to quit.