Experts say the health risks from smoking cigarettes are too significant to ignore.
The addictive habit is the leading preventable cause of premature death in the United States, accounting for more than 440,000 deaths a year.
“Stopping smoking is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health and the health of those around you,” said Russell V. Luepker, a cardiologist and Mayo Professor of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
That’s why quitting smoking and avoiding tobacco is one of what the American Heart Association calls Life’s Simple 7® — key health factors and behaviors that define how to keep your heart healthy, lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, and improve your quality of life.
Nicotine’s strong addictive quality can make quitting difficult, especially if you’ve smoked for several years. But even heavy and long-term smokers can make significant improvements to their health by quitting.
“It’s never too late to quit,” Dr. Luepker said.
Smoking’s link to increased risk for lung and other cancers is significant. But smoking also increases your risk for developing both long-and short-term effects on your cardiovascular health, Dr. Luepker said.
Cigarette smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease, but acting with other factors, it greatly increases the risk. Nicotine is a stimulant that increases your blood pressure and heart rate. And inhaling a cigarette’s carbon monoxide limits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, Dr. Luepker said.
Smoking also makes it harder to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, decreasing HDL (good) cholesterol and encouraging scarring in the arteries that can make it easier for LDL (bad) cholesterol to stick.
In addition, smoking is an important risk factor for stroke, especially for women who are also using oral contraceptives.
A smoking habit is also dangerous to the health for those around you, increasing their risks for heart and blood vessel disease.
The good news is that quitting can make a big impact on your health had have almost immediate benefits.
- After 20 minutes: Your blood pressure and heart rate can recover from the cigarette-induced spike.
- After 12 hours: The carbon monoxide levels in your blood return to normal.
- After two weeks to three months: Deeper breathing gradually returns as coughing and shortness of breath diminish. You regain the ability to cough productively, which cleans your lungs and reduces your risk of infection.
- After 1 year: Your risk of coronary heart disease is reduced by 50 percent.
- After 10 years: Your risk of death from lung cancer is about 50 percent less than a current smoker.
The heavier the smoking habit, the bigger impact on your health, but don’t be fooled into thinking that occasional cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking or chewing tobacco is OK.
“Find a way to quit using tobacco,” Dr. Luepker said. “It’s the best solution.”
Quitting isn’t easy, so it’s important to have a plan.
“The joke among smokers is to say ‘I’ve quit 100 times’,” Dr. Luepker said. “And many people have, but maybe it’s just for a day or two.”
Once you decide to quit smoking, consult with your health care provider to access supportive resources and create a plan that fits your life. Take the No-Smoking Confidence Assessment, set a quit date in the next seven days.
- Choose a method. Going “cold turkey” means to stop smoking all at once. Or you can quit gradually, either by reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke each day or gradually reducing the puffs you take on each cigarette until you quit completely.
Medication to help you quit smoking, especially when used in conjunction with a change in behavior, can help ease many of the side effects of nicotine withdrawal experienced when quitting cold turkey.
- Plan for your Quit Day by having low-fat foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, hard candies or chewing gum to snack on. Create a plan to mark each day you go without cigarettes with an activity you enjoy. “Try to build an environment that keeps you buys and supports non-smoking behavior,” Dr. Luepker said. “Hanging around friends who are smokers will not help you succeed.”
On your quit day, get rid of every cigarette, lighter, ashtray and cigarette butt from your house, office and car.
- Stop smoking on your Quit Day and give yourself credit for taking a positive step for better health. Use a calendar to mark every day you go without smoking. You may continue to have the urge to smoke, but learning more about what triggers it and what you can do about it can help.
- Resist the urge to cheat and smoke “just one more” cigarette. But if you do slip up, move forward with your plan to quit smoking. “The first couple weeks are the most difficult and it’s a significant hurdle to get over,” Dr. Luepker said. “Once you’ve made it past that point, you’re still vulnerable, but the hard part is over.”
- Develop a support system. Some quitters have a “quit smoking buddy” and others have a support program. Both can help smokers identify and cope with problems you may have when trying to quit. Get help by calling 1-800-QuitNow.
- Stick with It. Quitting smoking take a lot of will power. We should reward ourselves when we reach milestones and forgive ourselves if we take a step backward. Get back on course as soon as possible to stay on track and kick the habit for good. Don't give up! You can do it!