Health concerns usually top the list of reasons people give for quitting smoking. About half of all smokers who continue to smoke will end up dying from a smoking-related illness. Nearly everyone knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, but few people realize it is also a risk factor for many other kinds of cancer as well, including cancer of the mouth, voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix, stomach and some leukemias. For the first time, the Surgeon General includes pneumonia in the list of diseases caused by smoking.
Smoking increases the risk of lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These progressive lung diseases – grouped under the term COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – are usually diagnosed in current or former smokers in their 60s and 70s. COPD causes chronic illness and disability and is eventually fatal.
Smokers are twice as likely to die from heart attacks than nonsmokers. And smoking is a major risk factor for peripheral vascular disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to the leg and arm muscles, as well as cerebrovascular disease that can cause strokes.
Smoking also causes premature wrinkling of the skin, bad breath, bad smelling clothes and hair, and an increased risk of macular degeneration, one of the most common causes of blindness in the elderly.
For women, there are unique risks. Women over 35 who smoke and use birth control pills are in a high-risk group for heart attack, stroke, and blood clots of the legs. Women who smoke are more likely to have a miscarriage or a lower birth-weight baby. Low birth-weight babies are more likely to die or to be impaired.
Based on data collected in the late 1990s, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that adult male smokers lost an average of 13.2 years of life and female smokers lost 14.5 years of life because of smoking.
No matter what your age or how long you've smoked, quitting will help you live longer. People who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared with those who continue to smoke. Ex-smokers also enjoy a higher quality of life with fewer illnesses from cold and flu viruses, better self-reported health and reduced rates of bronchitis and pneumonia.
For decades the Surgeon General has reported the health risks associated with smoking. Regardless of your age or smoking history, there are advantages to quitting smoking. Benefits apply whether you are healthy or you already have smoking-related diseases. In 1990, the Surgeon General concluded: