When your parents were young, people could buy cigarettes and smoke pretty much anywhere – even in hospitals! Ads for cigarettes were all over the place. Today we’re more aware about how bad smoking is for our health. Smoking is restricted or banned in almost all public places and cigarette companies are no longer allowed to advertise on buses or trains, billboards, TV, and in many magazines.
Almost everyone knows that smoking causes cancer, emphysema, and heart disease; that it can shorten your life by 14 years or more; and that the habit can cost a smoker thousands of dollars a year. So how come people are still lighting up? The answer, in a word, is addiction.
Once You Start, It’s Hard to Stop
Smoking’s a hard habit to break because tobacco contains nicotine, which is highly addictive. Like heroin or other addictive drugs, the body and mind quickly become so used to the nicotine in cigarettes that a person needs to have it just to feel normal.
Almost no smoker begins as an adult. Statistics show that about nine out of 10 tobacco users start before they’re 18 years old. Some teens who smoke say they start because they think it helps them look older (it does – if yellow teeth and wrinkles are the look you want). Others smoke because they think it helps them relax (it doesn’t – the heart actually beats faster while a person’s smoking). Some light up as a way to feel rebellious or to set themselves apart (which works if you want your friends to hang out someplace else while you’re puffing away). Some start because their friends smoke – or just because it gives them something to do.
Some people, especially girls, start smoking because they think it may help keep their weight down. The illnesses that smoking can cause, like lung diseases or cancer, do cause weight loss – but that’s not a very good way for people to fit into their clothes!
Another reason people start smoking is because their family members do. Most adults who started smoking in their teens never expected to become addicted. That’s why people say it’s just so much easier to not start smoking at all.
The cigarette ads from when your parents were young convinced many of them that the habit was glamorous, powerful, or exciting – even though it’s essentially a turnoff: smelly, expensive, and unhealthy. Cigarette ads from the 1940s even showed doctors recommending cigarettes as a way to relax!
Cigarette ads still show smokers as attractive and hip, sophisticated and elegant, or rebellious and cool. The good news is that these ads aren’t as visible and are less effective today than they used to be: Just as doctors are more savvy about smoking today than they were a generation ago, teens are more aware of how manipulative advertising can be. The government has also passed laws limiting where and how tobacco companies are allowed to advertise to help prevent young kids from getting hooked on smoking.
How Smoking Affects Your Health
There are no physical reasons to start smoking – the body doesn’t need tobacco the way it needs food, water, sleep, and exercise. In fact, many of the chemicals in cigarettes, like nicotine and cyanide, are actually poisons that can kill in high enough doses. The body’s smart and it goes on the defense when it’s being poisoned. For this reason, many people find it takes several tries to get started smoking: First-time smokers often feel pain or burning in the throat and lungs, and some people feel sick or even throw up the first few times they try tobacco.
The consequences of this poisoning happen gradually. Over the long term, smoking leads people to develop health problems like cancer, emphysema (breakdown of lung tissue), organ damage, and heart disease. These diseases limit a person’s ability to be normally active – and can be fatal. Each time a smoker lights up, that single cigarette takes about 5 to 20 minutes off the person’s life.
Smokers not only develop wrinkles and yellow teeth, they also lose bone density, which increases their risk of osteoporosis (pronounced: ahs-tee-o-puh-row-sus, a condition that causes older people to become bent over and their bones to break more easily). Smokers also tend to be less active than nonsmokers because smoking affects lung power. Smoking can also cause fertility problems in both men and women and can impact sexual health in males.
The consequences of smoking may seem very far off to many teens, but long-term health problems aren’t the only hazard of smoking. Nicotine and the other toxins in cigarettes, cigars, and pipes can affect a person’s body quickly, which means that teen smokers experience many of these problems:
• Bad skin. Because smoking restricts blood vessels, it can prevent oxygen and nutrients from getting to the skin – which is why smokers often appear pale and unhealthy. An Italian study also linked smoking to an increased risk of getting a type of skin rash called psoriasis.
• Bad breath. All those cigarettes leave smokers with a condition called halitosis, or persistent bad breath.
• Bad-smelling clothes and hair. The smell of stale smoke tends to linger – not just on people’s clothing, but on their hair, furniture, and cars. And it’s often hard to get the smell of smoke out.
• Reduced athletic performance. People who smoke usually can’t compete with nonsmoking peers because the physical effects of smoking – like rapid heartbeat, decreased circulation, and shortness of breath – impair sports performance.
• Greater risk of injury and slower healing time. Smoking affects the body’s ability to produce collagen, so common sports injuries, such as damage to tendons and ligaments, will heal more slowly in smokers than nonsmokers.
• Increased risk of illness. Studies show that smokers get more colds, flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia than nonsmokers. And people with certain health conditions, like asthma, become more sick if they smoke (and often if they’re just around people who smoke). Because teens who smoke as a way to manage weight often light up instead of eating, their bodies lack the nutrients they need to grow, develop, and fight off illness properly.
Smoking Is Expensive
Not only does smoking damage health, it costs an arm and a leg. Depending on where you live, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day can cost about $1,800 dollars a year. That adds up. It’s money you could save or spend on something for yourself.
Kicking Butt and Staying Smoke Free
All forms of tobacco – cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco – are hazardous. It doesn’t help to substitute products that seem like they’re better for you than regular cigarettes – such as filter or low-tar cigarettes.
The only thing that really helps a person avoid the problems associated with smoking is staying smoke free. This isn’t always easy, especially if everyone around you is smoking and offering you cigarettes. It may help to have your reasons for not smoking ready for times you may feel the pressure, such as “I just don’t like it” or “I want to stay in shape for soccer” (or football, basketball, or other sport).
The good news for people who don’t smoke or who want to quit is that studies show that the number of teens who smoke is dropping dramatically. Today, only about 22% of high school students smoke, down from 36% just 7 years ago.
If you do smoke and want to quit, there’s more information and support out there than ever. Different approaches work for different people – for some, quitting cold turkey is best, whereas others find that a slower approach is the way to go. Some people find that it helps to go to a support group especially for teens; these are sometimes sponsored by local hospitals or organizations like the American Cancer Society. And the Internet offers a number of good resources. Check out some of these by clicking on the Resources tab to the right of this article. When quitting, it can be helpful to realize that the first few days are the hardest, and it’s normal to have a few relapses before you manage to quit for good.
Staying smoke free will give you a whole lot more of everything – more energy, better performance, better looks, more money in your pocket, and, in the long run, more life to live