These days we are all focused on the threat of COVID-19 and the often long-term health impacts of the virus. But there is another element widespread throughout the country that can also lead to long-term harm to the human body: tobacco.
Tobacco has been around a long time. Archeologists have documented its use for over 8,000 years. Native Americans used it in religious ceremonies and for medical purposes. Once European explorers discovered it, tobacco was used as a cure-all, suitable for dressing wounds, reducing pain, and even for toothaches. Settlers along the east coast of America made their fortunes cultivating the plant. In 1760 Pierre Lorillard established the first company that processed tobacco to make cigars and snuff. Cigarettes came along in the early 1900s; in 1901, 3.5 billion cigarettes were sold in the U.S.
Today tobacco can be smoked, inhaled or “vaped,” sniffed or chewed. The nicotine in any tobacco product moves quickly into a user’s blood, where it immediately stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine stimulates the central nervous system and increases blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. It also activates the brain’s reward circuits, much as cocaine and heroin will do, and increases the levels of dopamine, which reinforces sensations of reward and pleasure. That is why nicotine is highly addictive.
If one smokes tobacco in the form of a cigarette, all sorts of other chemicals are sent to the lungs. Most of the severe health effects of tobacco use comes from these other chemicals.
Cigarette smoking makes your blood thicker and increases chances of clot formation. It will increase blood pressure and heart rate, making the heart work harder than normal. In addition, smoking will narrow arteries, reducing the amount of oxygen-rich blood circulating to the organs. Together, these changes increase the chance of the arteries narrowing and clots forming, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke and the stimulant nicotine both put a strain on the heart by making it work faster. Smoking doubles the risk of having a heart attack and of dying from coronary heart disease. The good news is that after only one year of not smoking, that risk is reduced by half. After stopping for 15 years, the risk is similar to that of someone who never smoked.
Smokers also have an increased chance of getting stomach cancer or ulcers. Smoking can weaken the muscle that controls the lower end of your esophagus, which then allows stomach acid to travel up out of your stomach into the throat, a process known as acid reflux.
The lungs, of course, are badly affected by smoking. Coughs, colds, wheezing and asthma are just the start. Smoking can cause fatal diseases such as pneumonia, emphysema and lung cancer. Smoking causes 84% of deaths from lung cancer and 83% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD, a progressive and debilitating disease, is the name for a collection of lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. People with COPD have difficulties breathing, primarily due to the narrowing of their airways and destruction of lung tissue. Smoking also has been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, Type 2 diabetes, and pneumonia. Chewing tobacco also increases the risk of cancer, especially mouth cancers.
So what if you don’t smoke, but your best friend or partner does? It’s not good. People who stand or sit near others who smoke are exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure can lead to lung cancer and heart disease. It can cause health problems in both adults and children, such as coughing, phlegm, reduced lung function, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of ear infections, severe asthma, lung infections, and death from sudden infant death syndrome. Secondhand smoke exposure contributes to approximately 41,000 deaths among nonsmoking adults and 400 deaths in infants each year, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
More than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking. For every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness.
It’s not just a tiny virus like COVID-19 that can have such a severe effect on your health. It’s the small white stick that you put in your mouth that can create years of health problems for yourself and others in the future.
Note: Maine increased the age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 as of December 31, 2019.
If you or someone you know would like to reduce or stop your tobacco use, visit https://preventionforme.org.
Information drawn from the CDC, British National Health Service, American Lung Association.