Kick The Habit
Karla L. Robinson, MD
In this day and age where information regarding the ill effects of smoking and their cancer causing nature is readily available, we still find that 1 in 5 African American adults are smokers. What’s even more concerning is the fact that some studies show our community still doesn’t really understand all of the health risks associated with smoking. Let’s briefly explore these risks, discover how to quit, and discuss the tools to successfully “kick the habit”.
It is estimated that over 45,000 African Americans die each year of smoking related complications including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and chronic lung disease like emphysema. Compounding these statistics is the fact that 75% of African American smokers prefer menthol containing cigarettes. Interestingly, while menthol by itself may have some healing qualities, it has been shown to increase the absorption of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes. African Americans generally use fewer cigarettes on a daily basis as compared to other groups, but because of the high absorption of the toxins in menthol cigarettes, have a much higher lung cancer death rate.
The U.S. Surgeon General has deemed smoking to be the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. However, the adverse health effects that many are living with, is just as devastating.
In smokers there is an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. After long-term exposure to cigarettes, blood circulation is greatly decreased to the major organs and tissues in the body because of narrowed and hardened blood vessels. This process is caused by a buildup of fatty material in the vessels and is called atherosclerosis. This decreased flow of oxygen rich blood affects the heart, leading to an increased risk of heart disease. It can also affect the brain resulting in strokes. Smoking has also been shown to increase blood pressure and the likelihood of blood clots. With the harmful combination of decreased oxygen levels, damaged blood vessels, the increased tendency to form clots, and high blood pressure, this is a recipe for disaster.
Cigarette smoking causes irritation to the respiratory tract. Often times, symptoms of increased cough, congestion, mucus production, and frequent upper respiratory infections are common. There are also changes to the nasal passages and throat. These symptoms can be masked in African Americans smoking mentholated cigarettes due to the numbing effects of menthol. Long-term cigarette smoking can lead to chronic damage to the lungs. Shortness of breath, cough, and decreased exercise tolerance can all be signs of COPD, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema.
Smoking causes cancer. We mostly think of lung cancer when discussing cigarettes as “cancer sticks”, but truthfully many types of cancer have been linked to smoking. Repeated exposure to cigarettes causes changes to the cells in the lining of the respiratory tract and many major organs, leading to an increased risk of developing cancer. Smoking is known to cause cancer of the esophagus, larynx (voice box), mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, stomach, uterus, pancreas, and leukemia.
The Good News
Even as a chronic smoker for many years you can lessen your chance of developing these complications by kicking the habit. If you have already developed some of these smoking-related health problems, you can certainly improve your overall outcome and chances for survival. Not only can you improve your quality of life, but the American Heart Association reports that you can improve your life expectancy by choosing not to smoke. Those under 40 years can add at least 6-9 years to their life, while those 65-69 years old are estimated to add up to 4 years to their life expectancy.
The Tools to Quit: Counseling, Medications, Hypnosis
We all know that cigarette smoking is a tough habit to break due to the addictive properties of nicotine. While it is true that some successfully quit smoking “cold turkey”, most people need some help. Most of the smoking cessation treatments are generally well tolerated and only last for 3-6 months. Regardless of the treatment option you choose, it’s important to plan a “quit date” and model your treatment around that target date.
Studies show that participation in counseling and support groups (community or church-based) can greatly enhance the chances of success. Observing a model and having tips or suggestions from others who have successfully quit, will help to increase motivation and commitment.
Nicotine Replacement Therapy
The nicotine patch, gum, nasal spray, lozenges, and inhaler work by giving your body the nicotine “fix” without the dangerous effects of the chemicals found in cigarettes. These products are meant to be used on a tapering dose schedule coordinated with decreasing your cigarette intake.
The medications Chantix and Zyban (also known as Wellbutrin) work by altering the brain’s chemistry to reduce the pleasure and craving associated with smoking. Chantix is typically started a week before the desired quit date and Zyban is started 2 weeks before the target date. It is important to note that Zyban should not be used if a history of seizures is present, or if there has been recent antidepressant use. Discuss your risk with your physician.
Hypnosis is another method that has been shown to effectively help smokers to quit. The goal of hypnotherapy is to reduce the desire for cigarettes by changing the smoker’s perception of it. It typically requires multiple sessions for full effectiveness and is performed by a licensed psychologist.
Increasing your chances of success
It’s important to know the facts to increase your chances of successfully kicking the habit. Much like any drug, it is not uncommon to experience some withdrawal during the quitting process. Some common symptoms of withdrawal include dizziness, depression, anxiety, irritability, sleep disturbance, headache, fatigue, and some weight gain. Fortunately, these symptoms generally peak within 2-3 days of the last cigarette and subside over days to weeks.
Plan to change all of your habits when trying to quit smoking. Smoking is a highly behavior driven habit. If you typically smoke cigarettes with certain activities, it may be necessary to change those activities while attempting to quit. Try changing your daily routine a bit. Take a different route to work or choose different places to hang out. Avoid all triggers that may contribute to the urge to smoke.
Never too late
It’s never too late to make the decision to stop smoking. Not only are there immediate benefits to be gained from living a smoke free life, but also an improvement in the quality of life in the years to follow. If you are a smoker, make the commitment today to live a healthier life. If a friend or loved one is a smoker, choose to share this information and challenge them to kick the habit!