By: Duncan Postma, MD
Tobacco addiction continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. The addiction is much greater than was understood when I was a medical student forty years ago. We now know tobacco addiction is as bad as or worse than many of the so-called “hard drugs.” Furthermore, it is much easier to become addicted during the teenage years and early 20’s. I always stress to teens that smoking is not being rebellious, it is just a way the large tobacco companies “recruit” people to keep the companies in financial health. You are just trading your health for their wealth!
Insurance companies are well aware of the negative consequences of tobacco and their customer rates reflect this knowledge. Tobacco addiction has a negative impact on our economy as a whole in a large part due to its effect on our health. The cancer causing substances are mixed with lung damaging chemicals and nicotine. While nicotine gets the headline as the addicting chemical, the other chemicals do the most damage. Almost all of the body is damaged by tobacco, but we are most aware of lung and heart disease and cancers of the mouth and throat.
As a head and neck surgeon, I have seen the devastating impact of cancers caused by tobacco. While most head and neck patients can be cured, treatments can exact a terrible toll cosmetically and functionally. It is particularly sad to see a few of these patients continue to smoke after treatment- some even after removal of their voice box (they puff through a hole in their neck). Fortunately, most patients will quit smoking AFTER they get the cancer. Since it takes 10-20 years of heavy smoking to cause cancer, I try to get my smoking patients to imagine what the cancer is like and quit BEFORE the cancer occurs. I can’t remember any smoker who got a head and neck cancer who said the smoking was worth it. It is noteworthy that smokers who have heart attacks also quit smoking at higher than average rates.
In my role as a general ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor, I see a lot of health problems in children who live with smokers. This second hand smoke increases rates of tonsillitis and tonsillectomy as well as chronic and recurrent ear infections and need for ear tube surgery.
Quitting tobacco forever is very, very difficult. One year quit rates are about 1/7th the one month quit rates. Most people who have quit for good have had to try multiple times. Many of them say the urge to smoke never goes away. It’s like another job each day. While some people quit without any help, many cannot. The fact that there are many options to help smokers quit gives testimony to the fact that we do not have a “silver bullet” for this serious addiction. There are approaches that work for some and other approaches for others.
If you have a friend or family member who smokes, gently encourage them to consider stopping (again, maybe?). Point them to the website www.smokeouttallahassee.com for helpful organizations and resources to help with quitting.