Smoke & Mirrors, by Alison McCook

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L.A. Health News – July, 2004
Title: Smoke & Mirrors, by Alison McCook

People who quit smoking before the age of 35 can eventually live as long and healthy lives as people who never smoked, a new study shows.

"If you quit by age 35, you avoid nearly all of the harm smoking has on lifespan and quality of life," study author Dr. Donald H. Taylor, Jr. told Reuters Health.

However, it takes time to regain that lost health, the report notes; only people who had quit at least 15 years before the study began lived as many years in good health as never-smokers.

Taylor also cautioned that people should not believe that it’s play to smoke until you are 35. "The problem is that once you start smoking, it is hard to quit." he said.

In the report, Taylor and his co-author Dr. Truls Ostbye, both at Duke University in North Carolina, said that many people focus on how smoking can kill, but less attention is paid to how smoking can affect your quality of life, and cause you to live fewer years in good health. To investigate, Taylor and Ostbye reviewed interviews collected from middle-aged and older people, to which they were asked about their health and smoking status. The more than 20,000 participants were then re-contacted over several years, to see if their health had changed.

Smoking statistics as a result of research indicate that the way people describe their health predicts their future health, so Taylor and Ostbye used participants’ estimations of their health to predict how many more years they would live, and live in good health. The investigators found that people who were smokers tended to lose more years of healthy life than non-smokers. However, people who had quit smoking at least 15 years before the first interview – between the ages of 35 and 45 – tended to live as many years in good health as people who had never smoked.

Smokers also appeared to live fewer years then non-smokers, regardless of their health status, the authors report in the journal Health Services Research. Taylor explained that, in order to regain the health they had as non-smokers, people need to butt out for good before they develop health problems. "you can avoid most of the harm by quitting before having a negative health event." Taylor said. "You cant wait until you have a heart attack to quit smoking and reap these benefits." Taylor added that smokers may be more likely to quit, and people may be less likely to never start smoking if they hear more messages about how the habit can hurt health.

"The message that smoking kills people is so common that it may not have much impact. Perhaps we need to begin to focus on the debilitating effects of smoking on quality of life." Taylor said.

The Risks
Cigarette smoking kills nearly 430,000 people a year, making it more lethal than AIDS, automobile accidents, homicides, suicides, drug overdoses, and fires… Combined.

It reduces smoker’s life expectancy by 15 to 25 years and is the single most preventable cause of death. In one study only 42% of male lifelong smokers reached the age of 73 compared to 78% of nonsmokers. Smoking may be even more dangerous in women. Smoking-related health costs force Americans to spend an astounding $130 billion each year. Smoking may be even more dangerous now than 30 years ago, most likely because the lower tar and nicotine levels in most cigarette brands cause people to inhale more deeply.

The smoke is the most dangerous ingredient of the cigarette. Smoke contains nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide which are harmful gases. When people inhale they also bring tar into their lungs. Tar itself includes 4,000 chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer.

Other inhaled chemicals include cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde, methanol (wood alcohol), acetylene (the fuel used in torches) and ammonia. Smokers in their thirties and forties have a heart-attack rate that is five times higher than their nonsmoking peers. Cigarette smoking may be directly responsible for about 62,000 deaths from heart disease each year. Smoking cigars may increase the risk of early death from heart disease although evidence is much stronger for cigarette smoking.

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