I lit my first cigarette at the age of six, and, of course, quickly tossed it red-hot into a trash can. It never occured to me that that I could have burned down an entire Brooklyn apartment building, home to my grandfather, a longtime Camel smoker. Unfortunately, though, my fascination with cigarettes didn’t end there. No, indeed.
By 7th grade, I was on my way to being hooked, and it was not until I was all grown up—actually pretty old, truth be told—that I kicked the habit. Good thing, too, since cigarettes cause about 20% of all deaths in the U.S. annually, with women closing in on men. Says American Cancer Society’s Michael J. Thun, M.D., “When women smoke like men, they die like men.”
Here’s how it breaks down:
- Cigarettes cause about 443,000 deaths annually, including from second-hand smoke.
- About 49,400 deaths result from second-hand smoke alone.
- Men account for some 269,655 deaths every year, and
- Women account for 173,940 deaths every year.
Unfortunately, there are still some 45.3 million smokers in America; that translates to almost one in five of us, 18 and older. And all that second-hand smoke they’re exhaling is loaded with more than 250 toxic or carcinogenic chemicals, including formaldehyde, arsenic, and ammonia.
As for those electronic cigarettes being touted as a safe alternative to lighting up? They’re coming in with mixed reviews. On the positive side is the fact that they contain only nicotine, water, glycerol, propylene glycol (also found in inhalers) and flavorings, so they offer up far fewer toxic chemicals than the real deal. Plus, no smoke is emitted, only a vapor—hence the verb “to vape.”
It’s not all good news, though. For instance, a Greek study found that e-cigarettes caused breathing problems or “significant airway resistance” after only 10 minutes of use; however, “no cardiac disruptions” were discovered after participants “smoked” one for seven minutes. Moreover, the FDA has actually issued a warning about their potential health risks. Draw what conclusions you may, quitting is the best bet.
The American Lung Association has the proof, noting that heart attack risk begins to drop and lung function starts to improve after only a few months of stopping. After one year, the risk of coronary heart disease is half of that of a smoker’s, and health gains continue after that. Indeed, after 15 years, the risk of coronary heart disease is the same as a non-smoker.
As for the rest of the quitting story, two recent studies found that those who unhook themselves in their mid-30s to mid-40s gain about 9 years of life. Waiting until the mid-40’s to the mid-50s buys six additional years. And even those who put it off until they’re in their early 60s benefit by getting back four years. Of course, it’s also true, though, that those who never smoke are twice as likely to make it to 80 than we quitters.
How to do it? Suggestions range from grabbing a mint instead of a cigarette or brushing your teeth to exercising, meditating, and/or enlisting the support of a relative or friend. Aids are out there, too, in the form of over-the-counter patches, gums, and lozenge nicotine replacements. Others like the nicotine nasal spray and nicotine inhaler require a prescription.
There are also a number of websites available to lend support and advice. Among the best are:
- Smokefree.gov ~ Offering a step-by-step guide, this site says, “Quit smoking today! We can help.”
- American Lung Association ~ Explains that is has everything you need to know about smoking and how to quit.
- Quit.com ~ As it says, “Your path to quit smoking starts here.”
And apparently all the anti-smoking rhetoric has already convinced lots of folks to give up their smokes. In fact, in 1911, 19.3% of us smoked, down from 42.4% in 1965. Nevertheless, besides causing disease and death, smoking also costs the country about $193 billion a year in health bills and lost productivity every year.
Enter smoking bans. Some organizations are going so far as to refuse any job applicant whose urine tests positive for nicotine—even when it’s delivered via a patch—and this is allowed in D.C. and 29 states, including Pennsylvania. One example is the University of Pennsylvania health system which, as of this summer, will not hire anyone who uses tobacco in any of its forms at any of its locations—except those in New Jersey.
Not everyone is applauding, however. Take for example this from a USA Today editorial: “Companies can charge smokers more for health coverage or ban smoking on the job. But punishing people for using a legal product on their own time crosses a troubling line.” You decide.
Along those same lines, some 1,129 colleges across the country are now entirely smoke-free, including our own Montgomery County Community College. This is in addition to the countless others that forbid indoor smoking.
Meanwhile, right here in Montgomery County, a ban of a different sort. In December, the Lansdale Borough Council decreed that the use of tobacco products at a number of recreational sites will not be tolerated any longer. In fact, non-compliance will earn you an invitation to leave the premises. Do it repeatedly and incur a fine. It’s all part of the “Young Lungs at Play” campaign and postings are up to alert visitors.
There’s even a move afoot—and has been for some time—to attach an “R” rating to any film featuring an actor who smokes. In other words, children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. Typical reasons include “hard language, intense or persistent violence, and drug abuse.”
It’s all a sign of the times. Even Madonna is having her say about lighting up, as when, during a concert in Santiago, Chile, she stopped singing mid-way through her performance and shouted, “There are people smoking right now . . . No smoking! If you’re going to smoke cigarettes, I’m not doing the show . . .”
She’s got a point.