Most people are aware that there are substantial health risks to smoking -- after all, there is a significant warning label on the package.
However, reality is even more alarming. According to the American Cancer Society website, half of all smokers who continue smoking will end up dying from a smoking-related illness. It further declares that smoking is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths of Americans, and about 8.6 million people suffer from smoking-related lung and heart diseases.
So why is it so hard to quit smoking? In the 1800s, Mark Twain said, "Quitting smoking is easy. I've done it a thousand times." What he didn't know then is that the nicotine found in tobacco is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
"Like many illegal drugs, the nicotine in cigarettes releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes you feel relaxed," explained Karen Neil, RN, coordinator for Hilton Head Hospital's Smoking Cessation Program.
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According to Neil, when a person inhales smoke, nicotine is carried deep into the lungs, where it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. In fact, it even reaches the brain faster than drugs given intravenously.
"Unfortunately, smokers develop a tolerance to the drug over time and have to smoke more to get the feel-good effects of the dopamine," Neil said.
Evidence is conclusive that the cumulative effect of smoking is devastating on the body. Neil said igarettes contain cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde, cyanide, arsenic and strychnine.
"Most folks know smoking can cause lung cancer, but few people realize it is also a risk factor for many other kinds of cancer as well," Neil said. "It is also a major risk factor for heart attacks."
There is some good news if you are a smoker, and that is the fact that no matter how old you are, or how long you've smoked, quitting can help you live longer and be healthier. Bluffton resident, Lawanda Hynum smoked for 45 years before quitting.
"My birthday was coming up and I just decided I wanted to do it, not just for myself, but for my son who quit with me," she said.
The American Cancer Society reports that people who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years by half.
Neil says they also can expect to enjoy a higher quality of life with fewer illnesses from cold and flu viruses and reduced rates of bronchitis and pneumonia.
According to Neil, setting a date and having a quitting buddy are critical to making the commitment. Both are encouraged as part of the hospital's cessation program which works one on one with smokers to help them unlearn their habit and retrain their brains. She noted that when used in conjunction with nicotine replacement therapy and, when tolerated, Chantix (a drug that interacts with the dopamine receptors in the brain) can be used. Neil cautioned that people should always consult with a physician to determine the correct medication for their situations.