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You’d think there wouldn’t be any need to talk about the ill effects of lighting up. We’ve known for decades that smoking is dangerous, and it has been illegal to sell cigarettes to minors since 1992.
Yet 22 percent of Americans still light up, and smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in our country—linked to one in five deaths each year. So why are so many people still smoking?
Nicotine, a powerful ingredient in cigarettes, is thought to be as addictive as heroin. It triggers a release of dopamine, the pleasure transmitter in our brains. Dopamine is also released with great food, sex, cocaine and amphetamines. (Sounds like a party!) This can be particularly problematic for those who start smoking early.
Studies have shown that those who start smoking prior to the age of 18—or even worse, before 16—have an incredibly difficult time quitting later in life. They are half
as likely to successfully quit.
The addiction becomes hard-wired into our brains at a young age, since our brains are still developing into our early 20s.
THE GORY DETAILS
One of the most difficult things I have to do as a physician is explain to someone with emphysema how they will have to accept their “new normal.” Emphysema is a smoking-related lung problem that makes
it very difficult for people to breathe.
In medicine, we refer to it as “air hunger.” If you want to know what it feels like, put a clip on your nose so no air can pass through, and try to breathe only through a straw. Then imagine thick mucous in your throat and lungs that you cannot clear—all the time.
Then imagine coughing every day and feeling out of breath by simply walking across the living room. And then try wearing a portable oxygen tank that you need to carry with you everywhere you go.
I feel so sorry for my patients with emphysema, because no matter what medicines I use to try to help, this is their new reality. Lung cancer—which is also strongly linked to smoking and can lead to significant suffering—almost sounds more appealing.
THE HIGH COSTS OF SMOKING
For a Virginian who smokes one pack per day, quitting smoking means $1,800 saved every year.
It’s a bargain, at a few hundred dollars, to buy the medications that help you quit smoking. (See the sidebar below for some ways to get help quitting.)
The personal savings from quitting pale in comparison with the societal costs of smoking. It is estimated that the U.S. pays $100 billion a year to care for smoking-related illnesses. That’s some serious walking-around money!
THE FIRST 12 HOURS
If you quit smoking, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood will return to normal in 12 hours. Within months, you should cough less and breathe easier.
Within one year, your risk of heart disease will be cut in half compared with those who continue to smoke. Within 10 years, your risk of lung cancer will be cut in half compared with smokers.
Now that I have convinced you to quit, grab a calendar and pick a quit date. Throw out all your cigarettes, matches and lighters on your quit date. Tell your family and friends you are quitting.
Consider talking to your doctor about prescription medicines that can help, or buy over-the-counter nicotine gum or nicotine patches to blunt your cravings. Buy some sugar-free lollipops or gum to use any time you think about picking up a cigarette.
And consider contacting a support organization listed in the sidebar.
Make your plan to quit today, and you won’t smell like an ashtray or have yellow teeth or that sexy cough anymore, nor will you poison everyone around you with radiation-laden, chock-full-o-arsenic secondhand smoke.
Dr. Christopher Lillis is an internist
with Chancellor Internal Medicine
in Fredericksburg. He can be reached at healthyliving@freelance star.com.