With the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) World ‘No Tobacco’ Day coming up on May 31st, we’re going to take a look at the ongoing health effects of tobacco and smoking, as well as broader costs arising from chronic smoking related illness in the community. While the focus this year is on the illegal tobacco industry which accounts for about a tenth of global tobacco consumption, the WHO aims to reduce and eliminate all tobacco use around the world due to its wide ranging health effects.
Smoking on the decline in the Western World
Since the early 1990s, the proportion of Australians who smoke regularly has dropped from about a quarter of the total population to only 12.8%. The age at which people begin to smoke cigarettes has also increased over this period, from the early teenage years to about 16 years old. A very small proportion, less than one in twenty teens smoke daily, and 95% have never smoked more than 100 times. The majority of smokers in Australia are men between the ages of 40 and 49, and a slightly smaller group of women in their 20s. For both of these groups and everyone else, giving tobacco the flick is a good idea, as the negative health effects are larger than any other single risk factor.
Cancer – the scariest word is a smoker’s gamble
There are around a billion cigarette smokers in the world, which represents a much higher rate than the 1 in 10 figure for Australia. It also doesn’t take into account other tobacco users (cigars, for example), and those affected indirectly by second-hand smoke. Globally, smoking kills about 6 million people every year, and about 2 million of those deaths are due to various cancers. The inhalation of tobacco smoke exposes a number of tissues and organs to toxic smoke, which contains known carcinogenic chemicals. Lung cancer is the biggest killer of the smoking related cancers, and makes up a fifth of all cancer cases in Australia. This makes it the most preventable kind of cancer, though the tendency for smokers is to place themselves in the group of lucky ones who never see these kinds of outcomes!
A Japanese study showed that risk of lung cancer was not just confined to the smoker, but people who are exposed to the second hand smoke of heavy smokers had an increased incidence of lung cancers. But cancers can be triggered in any of the tissues in contact with smoke, including the gums, palate (the roof and sides of your mouth), tongue, throat, oesophagus (the tube leading to your stomach) and the nasal cavities. Some of the carcinogenic chemicals pass into the bloodstream and have been linked with cancers in other organs, including the kidneys, cervix, stomach, bladder and pancreas. While cancer may be the most feared outcome of smoking, it’s obviously not the only health problem tobacco smoking can cause.
Stroke – risking your brain and your life
When blood stops reaching a part of the brain, people suffer what is known as a stroke. This can cause temporary or permanent effects depending on the severity and the length of time the brain is deprived of oxygen. Strokes are related to blood vessels bursting (more accurately called an aneurysm) or becoming blocked (usually by a blood clot), the risk for both of which can be increased by the effects of smoking tobacco. You might hear doctors refer to a stroke as a TIA – or Transient Ischaemic Attack – and this simply means that blood is temporarily prevented from reaching a bodily tissue. A TIA is a mini-stroke, and these temporary (or transient) symptoms can indicate that a more serious event is likely to occur. A TIA is a serious event that requires immediate medical attention.
There is a very strong link between smoking tobacco and stroke risk, in fact, the more a person smokes, the higher their risk of stroke becomes. The effects of smoking can also increase the risk of peripheral vascular disease, where extremities are deprived of oxygen by damage to blood vessels.
Heart attacks and cardiovascular disease are also more common in people who smoke, again due to blood vessel damage, high blood pressure and increased heart rates due to the extra workload that the heart is lumped with. Tobacco use also decreases the capacity for physical exercise because of lung damage (you’re simply not sucking up enough oxygen, which worsens over time), and increases the chance of blood clots forming. Around 10% of cardiovascular disease cases are attributable to smoking.
Smoking and pregnancy
Of special concern for younger women is the effect of smoking whilst pregnant, or attempting to become pregnant. Smoking increases the risks of an ectopic pregnancy, and other serious complications including stillbirth, miscarriage and premature labour. Many of the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke pass through to the baby, and reduced oxygen flow can result in poor health of the developing foetus. Babies born to mothers who smoke have a lower birth weight on average, and a higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and other ongoing health problems. So it’s worth quitting if pregnancy is on the cards.
Other health problems
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two of the most commonly reported problems related to smoking. These are directly related to airways becoming obstructed due to the body’s reaction to exposure to tobacco smoke, and subsequent deterioration of tissues exposed to the smoke. Tobacco literally kills the tiny cells in the lungs, reducing their capacity to feed oxygen into your bloodstream. Many other problems are linked to the inability to breathe enough oxygen to supply the body, including inability to exercise to maintain healthy weight. While they may begin in a mild form, both chronic bronchitis and emphysema can result in fatalities, and contribute to smoking related deaths globally. All this is sounding rather grim, right? If you’re a smoker and you wish to cease your habits, never give up on yourself – only the cigarettes. Let’s talk about quitting.
The best way to avoid these health implications is to quit smoking tobacco entirely, which is obviously easier said than done, as nicotine is known to be an addictive substance. Though there are many aids to help people trying to give up tobacco, going “cold turkey” has been consistently shown to have the greatest success rate of any method. The only trick of this method is making a firm decision that you no longer wish to be a smoker. If you don’t feel up to the challenge, or fear your willpower will fold on a Saturday night out, remember that the sheer cost of health care related to smoking (in the tens of billions) has made governments around the world set up organisations designed to help you quit tobacco. Such outside help can ensure that if you decide to quit, you will have the help you need, even if you relapse on the path to being tobacco free. Ultimately, success comes down to not quitting on quitting. And the best mantra to remember? No-one ever regrets their decision to quit. To put yourself on the path to overall good health and wellbeing, take a holistic approach to your body and compare private health insurance providers. Some cover treatments may be beneficial as you begin the quitting process, so read the fine print and choose a deal that works for you. Here’s to clean breath and a clean bill of health!