Joanna had her first cigarette when she was 16.
“My older sister smoked and so did her friends,” Joanna * wrote in an email. “I saw them smoke and thought it was cool and they taught me how.”
This started a decade-long habit that Joanna gave up 14 years ago after giving her coworker chemotherapy for cancer.
“She was so tired and missed a lot of work,” Joanna recalled. “She also wore a wig and was sweating all the time. Selfishly, I really liked my hair and couldn’t imagine losing it and wearing a wig.”
If you want to quit, November 19th is the perfect day. This is the Great American Smokeout, a day created by the American Cancer Society in the 1970s to help people give up their cigarette habit.
“View the day as an opportunity to begin a journey to a smoke-free life,” said Laura Makaroff, senior vice president of prevention and early detection for the American Cancer Society. “Every day is a good day to quit smoking.”
Smoking in decline
While smoking rates are the lowest in decades – 13.7% of Americans smoked in 2019, compared with 42% in 1965, according to the American Cancer Society – lung cancer remains the leading killer of cancer in the United States.
“Some people may think that smoking is no longer a problem because they are not around people who smoke,” Makaroff said. “Smoking is still a big problem.”
Smoking remains widespread in certain populations, including GED holders, non-Hispanic Indians / Natives of Alaska, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people who earn less than $ 35,000 a year. The rates are also higher for those who are divorced / separated or widowed, do not have health insurance or are on Medicaid, and for people with disabilities.
“Part of [the reason] is the long-standing pattern and history of the tobacco industry targeting vulnerable populations to make them addicted to tobacco for life, “Makaroff said.
When people live in areas with more retailers, especially convenience stores, they are more likely to smoke.
“That makes a big difference,” said Makaroff. “It’s more readily available and they’re more exposed.”
The link between smoking and lung cancer came to light after a 1964 report by a surgeon general took the United States by storm. This was followed by a law that required warning signs on cigarette packets and advertisements. What is less well known, however, is that other cancers such as the stomach, kidney, bladder, cervix, and colon can also be caused by smoking.
“Smoking really affects many different parts of the body,” Makaroff explained.
People who smoke are also at risk for heart disease, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
COVID-19, smoking and vaping
While it’s not yet clear whether smoking increases the risk of a specific COVID-19 infection, smoking makes a person more susceptible to respiratory disease. Smokers or ex-smokers who get the virus may be more likely to be hospitalized and / or put on a ventilator.
Additionally, an August study found that young people who smoke and vape are seven times more likely to get the virus than non-smokers, and those who just vape are five times more likely to develop COVID-19.
On the positive side, the pandemic could inspire people to stop.
“We have seen an increase in people asking their doctors how to stop because they are concerned about the risks of COVID-19,” Makaroff said. “Maybe lung cancer feels further away, but COVID has affected so many people. When you see the immediate acute effects of COVID, it may feel a little more real.”
Tips for quitting
To break her addiction, Joanna turned to nicotine patches first. She had also started a new job that required a new routine and a new commute.
“The change in attitude and drive was a huge help to me when I quit,” she wrote. “It broke my old habits.”
She also went to a gym and started eating healthier foods.
“It made me feel a lot better overall and instead of gaining weight, I lost 50 pounds!” She wrote, adding that she had been using the patches for about two months.
Nicotine patches, exercise, and personal advice are among the methods that can help people quit, said Dr. Jessica Matthews, Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Kinesiology in Integrative Wellness Program at Point Loma Nazarene University and a member of HealthyWomen’s Women’s Health Advisory Board. Telephone counseling and group therapy can also be more effective than alone.
“Group therapy is a unique opportunity for individuals to learn about the challenges and successes of other smokers. These insights can be helpful on their own quitting journey,” Matthews wrote in an email. “Mindfulness training has shown promise as a short, stand-alone treatment for smoking cessation, according to the results of a 2011 randomized controlled trial.”
In addition to nicotine patches, there are prescription drugs that can help you quit. Another key to success is having a strong support system, but this can be difficult for people belonging to groups with higher smoking rates. Better access to treatment can help, Matthews said.
“This includes considering how to reduce the financial burden of seeking treatment and support, and to ensure that culturally appropriate interventions with an adequate level of health literacy are provided for those with potentially lower educational levels,” wrote Matthews.
Joanna’s husband initially continued to smoke while she quit, but joined her two years ago.
No matter how many years you’ve smoked, it’s never too late to quit, Makaroff said.
“Don’t give up,” advised Joanna. “Keep fighting for your health and believe that nicotine doesn’t have to control you!”
* Joanna asked us not to use her last name.
American Cancer Society
American Lung Association