The third Thursday of every November is known as the Great American Smokeout – the day in which American smokers are encouraged to quit for the day – and hopefully forever – with a renewed focus on their health.
Why should you quit smoking? The reasons are almost too numerous to list. Smoking has been proven to cause, and greatly increase a smoker’s risk of:
- Coronary heart disease
- Lung cancer and many other forms of cancer
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Cataracts and macular degeneration
- Gum disease and tooth loss
And that’s just a partial list. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the Unites States and causes more deaths each year than HIV, car accidents, alcohol use, drug use and gun incidents combined.
“On average, smokers will die ten years younger than nonsmokers. Smoking causes 90 percent of all lung cancers, a disease that kills more women each year than breast cancer. The single most important thing a smoker can do for his or her health is to quit smoking,” says Dr. Wilder Diaz Calderon, M.D., a Texas Health Care Internal Medicine and family physician.
Do we have your attention yet?
A Powerful Addiction
Of course, most people know that smoking is bad for their health and many smokers already want to quit. The problem, as any former smoker can attest to, is that the nicotine contained in tobacco is highly addictive. When someone smokes a cigarette, the nicotine is carried deep into lungs and then quickly dispersed into the bloodstream and delivered to the brain, where it produces a temporary feeling of pleasure. The more one smokes, the greater the tolerance to nicotine, which in turn leads to more frequent smoking in order to obtain the same level of pleasure.
When a smoker goes a long time without a cigarette, the nicotine level in the bloodstream diminishes, leading to intense cravings. As the cravings intensify, the person is apt to become edgy and irritable. Nicotine withdrawal can also lead to difficulty concentrating and feelings of anxiousness. So when nonsmokers cannot understand how a friend or family member can still smoke, despite knowing all of the dangerous health consequences of smoking, that’s why. Nicotine is extremely addictive – so much so that it is considered as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
In addition to its addictive qualities, nicotine itself is unhealthy; among other things, it can cause blood vessels to narrow, resulting in higher blood pressure and blockages. But nicotine is not the only cigarette ingredient that smokers need to worry about: there are more than 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes. Seventy of those chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans. It’s this cariogenic cocktail that makes cigarettes so dangerous and deadly.
Help is Available
The good news is that there are numerous therapies available to help you quit smoking, for good.
“Your physician can prescribe medication to help you quit smoking,” says Dr. Abdul Keylani, M.D., a Texas Health Care Cardiologist. “There is medication available which will block the nicotine receptors in the brain, serving to eliminate the ‘pleasure’ that is derived from smoking. There are also various nicotine replacement therapies available, such as patches and gum, which help to quell the nicotine cravings and gradually wean the smoker from the addiction.”
“If the typical smoker cuts out one cigarette per week, that will be four cigarettes a month and by month five, the smoker should become smoke-free. By getting weaned off the nicotine craving gently but steadily, in addition to adding medicine that helps calm the cravings, people should become smoke-free within a number of weeks, as compared to a lifetime of smoking,” Keylani explains.
Physicians agree that to successfully stop smoking, it’s essential to break both the physical addiction and the mental habit of smoking. Medications and replacement therapy can help with the physical addiction, while numerous online support programs exist to help break the habit of smoking.
In addition, it’s important to develop new habits which serve to distract you from smoking. Even better, engage in activities that you would not have been able to enjoy while smoking: exercise, go to a non-smoking restaurant that you would have avoided before, etc.
When quitting smoking, it is also very important to identify your “paired habits” – the things you tend to do while smoking. For many people, that includes drinking coffee or alcohol. If you pair these habits, it’s best to avoid them as you quit cigarettes. It’s also important to avoid spending time around smokers when you quit – it’s easy to slip up if you’re around others who are still smoking.
Quit Smoking, Reap the Rewards
Perhaps the best motivation to quit is to always remember the positive difference you are making for your health by kicking the habit. You already know that smoking greatly increases your risk for a host of diseases and health conditions. The good news is that the reverse is also true – quitting smoking almost immediately begins to improve your health. After not smoking for
- 20 minutes: heart rate and blood pressure drop
- 12 hours: carbon monoxide levels fall to normal
- 48 hours: ability to smell and taste improves
- 1 year: risk of heart attack drops significantly
- 2-5 years: risk of stroke drops to that of a non-smoker
- 5 years: risk of cancer of the throat, mouth, esophagus and bladder is reduced by half
- 10 years: risk of lung cancer drops by half
The bottom line is this: quitting smoking will help you live both a longer life and allow you to enjoy a better quality of life.
In addition to the health benefits, think of the other ways that becoming an ex-smoker will improve your life:
- You’ll save money – a pack-a-day smoker can easily spend more than $2,000 a year on cigarettes
- Your hair, clothes, car and home will no longer smell like smoke
- You’ll stop staining your teeth and improve your breath
- You’ll feel better overall
What About E-Cigarettes?
Some smokers wonder if switching to e-cigarettes is a safe way to quit tobacco but still satisfy nicotine cravings. Texas Health Care doctors advise against this.
“Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, the Food and Drug Administration is still studying them and has not yet determined if it will regulate them,” explains Dr. Diaz. “However, part of the problem with e-cigarettes is that it is not known exactly what chemicals they contain and are released when someone ‘vapes.’ Additionally, use of e-cigarettes simply continues and prolongs the addiction to nicotine, which can always lead back to full-blown tobacco use.”
Make a Plan and Quit Now
If you smoke, the most important step you can take is the first one: decide to quit, pick a day and make a plan. Participating in the Great American Smokeout, or quitting even sooner, is the single most important step you can take to improve your health. The American Cancer Society’s website is a great resource with useful tools and advice to help you make that plan to become a non-smoker on November 19th and beyond. Talking with your physician is another important step you can take – your doctor can help you develop a plan that works for you so you can become a nonsmoker for good.
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