What you get when you quit

By Meera Jain, M.D., internal medicine physician, Providence Medical Group-Northeast, and medical director, Providence Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Program

Quitting smoking is not easy. It takes most people an average of six tries before they finally quit for good – but you can up your success rate with the right combination of motivation and support.

Here's a great motivator: You probably already know that quitting smoking is the single most beneficial thing you can do for your own health. But did you know that when you quit, you also make a very important contribution to protecting the health of your family, your friends, and everyone who is near and dear to you?

It's true. According the U.S. Surgeon General, secondhand smoke – the smoke that you exhale, as well as the smoke that burns off the end of each cigarette – fills the air around you with more than 250 chemicals known to be toxic or cancer-causing. Everyone who breathes that air – whether they live in your home, ride with you in your car or just hang out with you when you're smoking – inhales those chemicals and absorbs them into their bodies. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to the poisons in secondhand smoke, because their lungs and bodies are still developing, but adults are affected, too. Here's what happens to them:

When infants are exposed to secondhand smoke:

  • It increases their risk of dying from sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS – a mother's smoking is the strongest risk factor for SIDS.
  • They develop weaker lungs than babies in nonsmoking households.
  • They develop more bronchitis, pneumonia and other breathing problems.
  • They have a 50 percent greater likelihood of being hospitalized with a respiratory infection in their first year of life.

When children are exposed to secondhand smoke:

  • They get sick more often and miss more days of school.
  • They have more problems with coughing, wheezing, phlegm and breathlessness, as well as more serious respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • They are more likely to develop asthma, and to have more frequent and serious attacks if they already have asthma.
  • They have more ear infections, and are more likely to need surgery to treat them.
  • Their risk of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and other behavioral and learning disorders is higher.
  • They have greater long-term risks of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and Type 2 diabetes, and worsened control of asthma.
  • Some develop early markers of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
  • They are far more likely to become smokers themselves, and to start at an earlier age, inheriting all of the health risks that go along with tobacco addiction.

When adults are exposed to secondhand smoke:

  • They are at 20 to 30 percent greater danger of developing lung cancer – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates that 3,400 nonsmokers die from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke every year.
  • Even brief exposure, according to the CDC, can cause cellular damage that sets the cancer process in motion.
  • They have a 25 to 30 percent greater risk of developing heart disease – according to the CDC, an estimated 46,000 nonsmokers die prematurely from heart disease caused by secondhand smoke every year.
  • The chemicals cause immediate changes in the function of their heart and vascular system, raising their risk of a heart attack.
  • According to the CDC, even brief exposure can damage the lining of blood vessels and cause changes in the blood that can cause a deadly heart attack.

The conclusion of the 2006 Surgeon General's report, “The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Secondhand Smoke,” says it all: There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. The best way to protect those near and dear to you is to quit. Until you do, make your home and your car strictly smoke-free, and do your smoking outside.

So what's the best way to quit?

Get support. The tobacco-cessation medications available today are proven to double the success rate. Participating in a smoking-cessation program will give you an even stronger likelihood of success.

To start, I urge you to make two calls: one to your primary care provider to schedule an appointment to talk about quitting, and one to Quit For Life at 866-784-8454. This free service puts you in touch with a trained counselor who can help you make a plan to quit and discuss medication options.

There is no better time to become smoke free than now. Get the support you need, and do it for yourself – and for everyone you love. Providence Health Plan offers multiple resources to help you kick your tobacco habit.

Read about one young woman's success with quitting.