A 50-year retrospective on the dangers of smoking

MDA Katy RCCBy Richard Ehlers, M.D., F.A.C.S.

This month marks an important anniversary in the history of public health. In January 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office released its first report on smoking and health, a comprehensive scientific review which identified cigarettes as a major public health hazard and quickly shifted public attitudes about smoking. Although adult smoking rates have been cut in half in the 50 years since the surgeon general’s original report, tobacco remains a major killer of Americans in 2014.

Surgeon general’s report

Within months of the report’s first publishing, the Federal Trade Commission ordered cigarette manufacturers to place a warning label on their products, and in 1969, cigarette advertising on American TV and radio was banned. Since then, adult smoking rates have been cut in half, from 42 percent in 1965 to 19 percent in 2009. Unfortunately, the number of actual smokers hasn’t decreased as dramatically as percentages would indicate, due to the large population growth in the U.S. over the last 50 years. Today, there are 43.8 million smokers, versus 50 million in 1965, and the habit is still taking American lives at an alarming rate. Smoking has been linked to 11 different types of cancer and remains the leading cause of preventable and premature death in the United States.

Impact on health

In addition to the many smoking-related cancers, it is a major cause of heart disease, stroke, lung diseases such as emphysema and asthma, low birth rate in newborns, and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Secondhand smoke can be just as detrimental, increasing a person’s risk of developing heart disease by 25 to 30 percent and lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, secondhand smoke kills nearly 38,000 non-smokers each year.

Benefits of quitting

Over time, quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. Just 20 minutes after quitting smoking, a person’s heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the blood drops to normal, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. After 2-3 months, circulation improves and lung function increases. One year after a person stops smoking, his or her risk of coronary heart disease is half of someone who still smokes. Five years after quitting, risks of cancer of the mouth, throat and bladder are cut in half. At 15 years, the risk of coronary heart disease is the same as a lifelong nonsmoker’s. It also improves the health of those around you, particularly children, who do not choose to smoke, but are placed at risk from the smoker’s they care about.

Tips for kicking the habit

A great way to reduce withdrawal symptoms while you are trying to quit is to use some sort of nicotine replacement therapy. These products work by giving the body controlled doses of nicotine without the harmful chemicals that are in tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars and snuff. Patches, gums and lozenges are available without a prescription. With a prescription, people also can try a nasal spray or inhaler. Other good tips for quitting include setting a quit date and telling family, friends and coworkers about your plans. Get rid of cigarettes and ashtrays at home, work, and in your car, so there are no physical reminders of cigarettes in your daily life.

Lastly, consider getting involved in a smoking cessation program in order to have a constant support system from people who understand the unique challenges that come with quitting. Please contact your doctor or MD Anderson at 713-792-7848 if you would like help with quitting. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s report, and in the spirit of the new year, I encourage all smokers to make a commitment to quit smoking for the benefit of their health and the health of their loved ones.

Richard Ehlers, M.D., is the medical director and assistant professor of surgical oncology at the MD Anderson Regional Care Center in the Bay Area. For more information, visit www.MDAnderson.org/BayArea.

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