There’s no such thing as a “good” level of tobacco use. The moment you decide to light and smoke a cigarette or use any other tobacco-related product, you’re instantly harming your body and predisposing it to all the side effects that come with tobacco use. You’re also putting those around you at risk. To learn more about why smoking is bad for you, read this section.
Quitting smoking is always a good thing. As soon as you decide it’s time to quit, you’re taking a positive step towards a healthier life. To learn more about how to quit smoking, read this section.
There’s no question that smoking is bad, but why is that? Despite all the commercials, billboards, and other information about the serious effects smoking has on the body, why is it that millions of Americans still smoke? Is it really that hard to quit? And if so, what can help? The answers to these questions lie in knowing how smoking and tobacco use affect the body, why they’re so addictive, what steps you need to take to stop, and how to commit to stopping. Quitting smoking is a long process, but the benefits you’ll get in return are priceless.
Why is smoking bad for you?
The numbers don’t lie: nearly 1 out of 5 deaths in the US is caused by smoking. As of 2019, an estimated 34.1 million American adults (14 out of 100) smoke cigarettes and more than 16 million Americans have a smoking-related illness. It’s most prevalent in adults between 25 and 64 years old, and is more common in men than women. Other factors that may play a part in smoking include:
Race: highest among Native Americans and Alaska natives
Education: more common in those with lower education
Income: more prevalent in those who are below the poverty level
Location: highest in the Midwest and Southern states
Marital status: seen more among divorced, separated or widowed persons
Sexual orientation: more prevalent in the LGBTQ community
Health insurance: more common in uninsured adults and those on Medicaid
Disability: seen more in adults with a disability or other physical limitation
Psychological stress: more prevalent among adults who experience severe anxiety
Tobacco and nicotine are the 2 main reasons why smoking is bad for you. Tobacco use leads to the majority of negative effects that come from smoking, while nicotine is responsible for the addictive effect. Aside from cigarettes, there are other forms of tobacco such as cigars, e‑cigarettes (vaping) and smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco chewing and inhaling snuff), which can be as bad as smoking.
Smoking can lead to many diseases and health conditions. Some of the worst ones include:
Lung cancer: smoking cigarettes accounts for 87% of deaths from lung cancer, with a less than 20% chance of survival for 5 years after diagnosis
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): smoking causes around 80% of cases of COPD, a progressive disease that usually leads to long-term disability and early death
Heart disease: smoking leads to narrowing of the arteries, which impairs the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart. This can cause a heart attack and other complications.
Stroke: arteries that supply your brain can also become narrowed or blocked due to smoking, leading to a stroke that can cause death or permanent disability
Diabetes: smokers are 30% to 40% more likely to develop diabetes compared to nonsmokers, and smoking increases the risk of complications from diabetes
Eye problems: smoking can lead to blindness, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) — the leading cause of blindness in adults 65 and older
Other cancers: smoking increases the risk of developing all types of cancers
On the other hand, some of the many benefits of quitting smoking include:
Normalization of heart rate and blood pressure
Decreased levels of carbon monoxide in the blood, leading to improved oxygen flow in the body (within hours of quitting)
Improved circulation, less phlegm, coughing and wheezing (within weeks of quitting)
Improved lung function (within months of quitting)
Lowered risk of acquiring smoking-related illnesses (within years of quitting)
How to quit smoking
No matter how old you are, and no matter how long you’ve been smoking, quitting will always lead to improvement in your health. Quitting can lead to a longer life, more energy to do the things that you love, and saving money. It all starts with taking the first step towards living a tobacco-free life.
Steps to quitting smoking: think START
Quitting smoking begins with creating a realistic plan you can commit to. To start, you can follow the catchword memory aid, START:
S — Set a “quit date”
Set a date within the next 2 weeks — just enough time to make a plan while not losing your motivation. Mark it on your calendar, and plan to completely stop smoking starting that day. You can choose to gradually lessen how much you smoke up until your quit date, or you can stop “cold turkey.”
T — Tell your family and friends that you plan to quit
Let your loved ones and those close to you know about your plans, so they can give you the support and encouragement you need. It might also be helpful to find a “quit buddy” who wants to stop smoking too. That way, you can help and look out for one another, especially during rough times.
A — Anticipate and plan for any obstacles you may face while quitting
Many people relapse within the first 3 months. You can avoid this by planning ahead for these obstacles, which include dealing with withdrawal symptoms and managing cravings.
R — Remove all tobacco products from your home, car and work
Aside from tossing out all the tobacco products that you already have, it’s important to throw away all lighters, ashtrays and matches. Get rid of the smell of smoke by washing your clothes and fabrics, and cleaning your furniture. It’s also critical to avoid secondhand smoke at all costs. Not only can the smell of smoke make you relapse, but exposure to secondhand smoke can cause many serious health issues as well.
T — Talk to your doctor for help
Your doctor can help you with your plan, and also help manage the symptoms you may already have. There are many treatments available for quitting smoking, and your doctor can help you find the best one for you. There are also patches and other medications available to help you stop.
Knowing what makes you want to smoke can help you avoid triggers (things and situations that make you want to smoke). These may include specific situations, feelings, activities, and even people. To identify your triggers, you can keep a “craving journal,” in which you write down about the times when you feel like smoking. Be sure to describe the details of your trigger, such as what time it happened, where, who was with you, and how intense the craving was.
Coping with withdrawal symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms include having the urge to smoke, feeling irritated, restless, anxious, or depressed, gaining weight, and having trouble sleeping or concentrating. To remedy this, try to stay active and keep yourself busy. Get in touch with your friends and family to socialize, or do the things that you enjoy yourself. If distracting yourself with people or activities doesn’t seem to work, call you doctor. There are many ways in which professionals can help you cope with your symptoms and help you stay on track.
If you find yourself suddenly craving a cigarette, try doing any of these:
Find a substitute such as chewing gum, eating celery sticks or sunflower seeds
Keep your mind busy by playing games, listening to music, or reading a book
Keep your hands busy by squeezing a stress ball or playing with a fidget cube
Brush your teeth
Stay hydrated by slowly drinking a large glass of water
Go to a smoke-free area such as a no-smoking mall or a movie theater
Know your reasons for quitting. This can help you stay motivated and on track.
Try alternative therapies such as hypnosis, acupuncture and behavioral therapy.
Join a support group
Use support websites, apps and hotlines such as:
YouCanQuit2 (for military personnel and their families)
American Cancer Society hotline (1–800-227‑2345)
National Cancer Institute smoking quit line (877–448-7848)
Veterans smoking quitline (1–855-784‑8838)
Quitting smoking is a long journey with many ups and downs. It may not be easy, but it’s not impossible. With the right tools and with a positive mindset, you’ll be able to get rid of your smoking habits for good.
Experience the Oak Street Health difference, and see what it’s like to be treated by a care team who are experts at caring for older adults.