Quitting Smoking is One Resolution You Need to Keep

One time when quitting is winning

As another season of overindulging draws to a close, many of us will plan — then promptly ignore — resolutions to (pick one) lose excess weight, exercise or stop smoking. These days, however, it seems that smokers who vow to quit in the new year might have an added incentive, given that their habit, once viewed as a sign of sophistication, is now considered by many to be socially unacceptable and even offensive.

Whether you’re a smoker or not, no doubt you’re familiar with the litany of ill effects that can result from smoking, which claims more than 480,000 — that’s about one in five — American lives each year and is the top cause of preventable death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But even smokers who believe that they’ve heard it all before are often surprised to learn that lighting up can harm nearly every organ in their body and cause cancer not just in their lungs, throat, or mouth, but throughout their body. In addition, few smokers realize that with every drag on their cigarette they inhale carbon monoxide — the same carbon monoxide that many of us guard against with detectors in our homes, says Diane Masters, a health educator at Concord Hospital’s Center for Health Promotion. Masters likens smoking to standing and breathing behind a bus. “As a person smokes throughout the day, their carbon monoxide level increases so that by the time they go to bed at night their levels are sometimes alarmingly high, depending on how much they smoke,” she says.

If only quitting were easier. When smokers try to break free from cigarettes, they face a battle against a fierce addiction that is firmly rooted in their physiology and psychology. The nicotine that smokers inhale triggers reward mechanisms within the brain, and repeated exposure creates increased dependence on and cravings for nicotine, along with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that feed the desire to smoke, says Eduardo Velez Calderon, MD, FCCP, a pulmonologist with Pulmonary Associates and St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua.

Adding to the challenge, many smokers must abandon decades-old habits, such as smoking to relax, or lighting up with their morning coffee. Smokers can grow to fear the psychological and physiological withdrawal symptoms, Velez says, which contributes to the desire to smoke even after physical withdrawal symptoms have ended. Sadly, the longing for cigarettes can linger throughout a person’s life, Velez says.

Some smokers who want to reform find inspiration in today’s increased understanding of the danger that second- and third-hand smoke poses to the health of loved ones who spend time with smokers. Nonsmoking companions can inhale vapors or ingest particles from smoke that settle on fabric and other surfaces. Second- and third-hand smoke threaten the health of everyone, including infants, children and even pets. Among animals, small pets and animals that clean themselves, such as cats, are at particular risk, Masters says.

Regardless of whether your body is exposed to smoke through active or passive means, the physical effects “are essentially the same,” Velez says, and the length rather than the rate of exposure appears to be most meaningful in terms of health consequences. “Many people who smoke only a few cigarettes a day for many years have the same risk as patients who smoke a lot but only for a few years,” Velez says. “People think that because they smoke a little, they are at less risk, but the length of the smoking has a lot to do with problems [that develop],” he says.

Fortunately, people who want to quit can take advantage of an array of methods and tools, including nicotine replacement therapies such as patches, gums and nasal sprays that help wean smokers from their deadly habit. Such aids “take the edge off uncomfortable physical feelings” that typically appear as withdrawal symptoms, Masters says.

However, nicotine replacement therapy is “not a magic wand,” Masters says. Smokers who try nicotine replacement, fail to quit and then go on to complain that “it” didn’t work need to adjust their expectations, Masters says. The purpose of nicotine replacement therapy is to lessen the discomfort of smokers who are going through the quitting process and to provide assistance in overcoming addiction to nicotine, which “is as serious a drug as any,” she says.

"As people smoke throughout the day, their carbon monoxide levels increase."

Of course, “you don’t have to use a smoking cessation aid to quit smoking,” Velez says, but the nicotine replacement tools “do help with controlling the withdrawal symptoms and the anxiety that comes with them.” Results vary, but in general, such aids improve the chance of success by at least 50 percent compared to not using anything, Velez says.

These days, some individuals turn to what they see as a new ally in the war against smoking: electronic cigarettes. Proponents believe that the nicotine-laced vapor produced by e-cigarettes is less harmful than smoke created by conventional cigarettes. But whether that is true remains open to debate and uncertainty. The e-cigarette industry is not regulated, so the ingredients in products can vary, Masters says. “What’s inside those cartridges is a question mark because there is no approval process and there is no manufacturing standard. It’s the Wild West for these things; you don’t really know what’s in that vapor,” unlike the patches and gums and other traditional nicotine-replacement aids, she says.

Indeed, “there is a lot of controversy” surrounding e-cigarettes, says Velez. “The nature of the chemicals that are present in e-cigarettes is not well known,” he says. “There could be a less harmful chemical brew” than what exists in traditional cigarettes, but with the current manufacturing and selling system, doctors and users can’t know whether that is the case. Smokers should keep in mind that manufacturers want to sell their products, Velez says, so not only might smokers who turn to e-cigarettes find that they are not able to end their nicotine addiction, it’s possible that the e-cigarettes they use might contain more nicotine than regular cigarettes, Velez says.   

Reasons to Quit

How bad is it? Here are some hard facts about smoking from the American Lung Association:

  • Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. Smoking is directly responsible for approximately 90 percent of lung cancer deaths and approximately 80 to 90 percent of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis) deaths.
  • Among current smokers, chronic lung disease accounts for 73 percent of smoking-related conditions. Even among smokers who have quit, chronic lung disease accounts for 50 percent of smoking-related conditions.
  • Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body. It is a cause of coronary heart disease, stroke and a host of other cancers and diseases.
  • For more information, see lung.org.


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