The facts speak for themselves: If you smoke, you have 10 times the risk of getting lung cancer than your nonsmoking counterparts. You also greatly increase your chances of developing other forms of cancer, including adult acute and chronic leukemia, and cancers of the throat, mouth, larynx, esophagus, kidney, stomach, bladder, pancreas, and cervix. Besides cancer, smoking is associated with a host of other diseases, particularly heart disease and emphysema.
Tobacco smoke contains at least 43 carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances. So—yes—smoking causes cancer! In fact, scientists estimate that smoking presently accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths.
Wherever smoke comes in contact with living cells, it does damage to the DNA, potentially causing cells to begin dividing out of control. This means that all tobacco products increase cancer risk. Even if smokers don’t inhale—cigar and pipe smokers and users of chewing tobacco—they are at increased risk for lip, mouth, and tongue cancers. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to completely avoid inhaling smoke, so lung cancer risk escalates as well.
Smoking not only harms the smoker’s health but the health of those around him or her. Research has found that exposure to second-hand smoke (also called environmental tobacco smoke, or ETS) can cause lung cancer. Data also show that children raised in a household with a smoker suffer many more health problems, especially respiratory illnesses, than children raised in nonsmoking households.
Nicotine is a drug found naturally in tobacco. When smoke is inhaled, the nicotine is carried into the lungs where it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, then carried to the heart, brain, liver, and spleen. Several studies have found nicotine to be as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
Because nicotine produces pleasurable feelings, the smoker finds him-or herself wanting more. Over time, as the nervous system adapts to nicotine, tolerance to the drug develops. Smokers therefore tend to increase their nicotine intake in order to attain the “feel-good” effects. If they try to stop smoking, they suffer both physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, such as nervousness, headaches, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. This makes quitting very difficult.
How to Quit
Today, in addition to support groups, there are many tools available to help smokers quit.
The nicotine patch, gum, and nasal spray, known collectively as nicotine replacement therapy or nicotine substitutes, provide lower doses of nicotine without the other harmful components of tobacco. Nicotine replacement therapy helps to alleviate the physical symptoms of withdrawal, allowing the smoker to direct more energy toward coping with the psychological aspects of breaking the addiction.
There is also a drug called Zyban that reduces the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Zyban works on chemicals in the brain that are related to nicotine cravings and can be used with nicotine replacement therapy. In fact, one study found that using both the nicotine patch and Zyban helped 58 percent of smokers to remain smoke-free for more than a month.
Hypnosis and acupuncture may be helpful for some people. But cigarette filters that reduce tar and nicotine are not very effective, because smokers who use filters actually smoke more, according to research studies. No scientific evidence supports claims that over-the-counter smoking-deterrent products change the taste of tobacco, or that special diets and dietary supplements control nicotine cravings.
It is difficult to fight any addiction, but many organizations sponsor smoking cessation programs and provide more detailed information on how to quit.
National Cancer Institute
Office on Smoking & Health National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion