Smokers planning to quit should read the Million Women Study recently published in the prestigious medical journal, the Lancet. It will confirm their worst fears. They are likely to die a lot younger than non smokers. But it will also inspire them to redouble their efforts to quit smoking early.
The well documented benefits of doing so can be dramatic. Smokers who quit at 30 revert to a lifespan that almost matches that of non-smokers. Even for a 40-year-old the benefits are substantial. But if they continue to smoke they are much more likely to die from a smoking related illness and several years sooner than they normally would.
The results of the Lancet study confirm much of what we already know about the hazards of cigarettes.
Smoking is bad for your health and the sooner you stop the better.
Half , possibly more, of all smokers die from illnesses that are the direct result of their smoking. Cigarettes kill over a hundred thousand in the UK and nearly half a million in the US each year. These are preventable deaths and extraordinary statistics for a substance that is widely available, legal and easy to use.
Habitual smokers who smoke all their lives die somewhere between ten and fourteen years earlier than non smokers. This is the duration of a life sentence for murder in some countries. It is one the smoker has some control over if he succeeds in stopping.
Smokers also suffer poorer health than non smokers. They get heart attacks, cancers, bronchitis and emphysema, strokes and a myriad of other conditions which strike early on and reduce the quality of their lives considerably.
Their children are put at risk by the effects of secondhand smoke, as are the babies of women who continue to smoke during pregnancy.
The bulk of smoking related health problems are caused by the toxins, tars, gasses and additives in cigarettes.
But it is the nicotine in tobacco which keeps the smoker coming back for more despite having numerous reasons not to.
Nicotine is addictive. As a mood and behaviour changing agent it is considered by some experts to be just as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
When we inhale it in a cigarette it passes through the lungs into the bloodstream where it is quickly carried to the brain. There it binds to receptors on nerve cells that influence the release and levels of chemicals called neurotransmitters such as dopamine which produce a pleasurable sensation.
This encourages the smoker to repeat the process and tolerance develops. This is a capacity common to many drugs of abuse where repeated, fixed doses produce less of an effect. The user needs to increase his intake to get the same response as he did before. He smokes more.
A 20 a day cigarette smoker takes about 200 individual puffs in total, each representing a single nicotine 'hit' for the brain's reward centre. Doing this day in day out for years has consequences. Addiction is one.
Many smokers don't realise how potent nicotine really is, innocently putting their penchant for cigarettes on a par with their 'addiction' to coffee which is highly unlikely to kill them.
It also explains why cigarettes kill more people each year than all other recreational drugs, including alcohol, combined and why half hearted attempts to quit usually end in failure.
Smokers are aware, consciously or otherwise, that cigarettes are bad for their health. Most-nearly 70%-express a desire to stop at any one time. Less than half try and the vast majority fail at their first go.
This should not discourage them. Failure is more a testimony to the addictive power of nicotine than to any particular weakness in their own willpower. It should embolden them.
Many smokers have to try several times before succeeding and, having learned what to expect from previous failed attempts, eventually triumph. Estimates vary but it is thought about fifty percent of smokers stop over the longer term.
Anyone can quit, either on their own or with help from the several stop smoking organisations and aids that considerably increase their chances of stopping. As you may be dealing with a lengthy addiction to a potent substance, and the habit forming rituals that accompany it, you have to take quit attempts seriously if you want to stop.
Success depends on several factors, including motivation, the reasons you want to quit, your level of dependence on nicotine, previous quit attempts and whether you take advantage of smoking cessation aids like behaviour support or medications which can improve your chances of quitting.
Many smokers have done so and more people in the West now avoid taking up smoking than in the past. The number of smokers in the UK and US has been falling for years, from about 35% in 1980 to 20% today.
Being armed with the facts about the consequences of smoking-such as those in the recent study for example-is a key weapon in helping smokers make the decision to quit.
Being informed is a good start.
Dr Brogan is a certified NCSCT stop smoking practitioner.
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