CANCER
December 16, 2010

For the New Year: Let’s Quit!

The Surgeon General's report on smoking details the damage and the speed with which smoke (even secondhand) harms you.

A new report from the Surgeon General warns that even a little bit of first- or secondhand smoke exposure causes "immediate" and possibly irreparable damage to the airways and lungs. This newest report is the 30th major tobacco warning since the first in 1964, and focuses on both the biology and the behavior of cigarette addiction.

Cigarette smoke contains 'massive quantities of free radicals' which can destroy our cells’ DNA, leading to unrestrained growth and ultimately to cancer. Not only does smoking harm the lungs, it also leads to heart disease and fertility problems.

According to background information in the study, the statistics are still somewhat disappointing: One in five high school students and adults still smokes. Cigarette smoke kills over 1,000 people per day, and tobacco use is the likely cause of one in three cancer deaths in the country. On a brighter note, many states are offering significant help to smokers who wish to quit, and today there are better resources and treatment options to help people kick the habit than ever before.

The new study outlines how, over the last 50 years, changes in cigarette design and promotion may actually make it harder for smokers to quit. This is because today’s cigarettes "deliver nicotine more quickly and efficiently" than earlier models. Additionally, the introduction of "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes may trick people into thinking that their cigarettes are safer than full flavor versions, which may make them less likely to quit. The study also points out how the risk of developing smoking-related disease has not declined in recent years, despite the introduction of these "lighter" alternatives, which suggests that the alternatives are not safer at all.

The study also enumerates the laundry list of carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds) found in cigarettes, which may lead not only to lung cancer but also to cancers in practically any part of the body. Many of these chemicals work by altering or destroying the ways in which cells normally keep their own growth and replication in check, which allows them to multiple at will — and become cancer.

And, of course, the study details just what happens to the lining of the lungs as smoke is inhaled. Cigarette smoke contains "massive quantities of free radicals" which can destroy our cells’ DNA, leading to unrestrained growth and ultimately to cancer. Not only does smoking harm the lungs, but it also leads to heart disease and reproductive issues. Smoking can lead to fertility problems in both women and men (male smoking alone is linked to problems during his mate’s pregnancy), as well as miscarriage and developmental problems in the children of smokers.

In her comments on the report, the Surgeon General, Regina M. Benjamin, says "[t]he chemicals in tobacco smoke reach your lungs quickly every time you inhale causing damage immediately. Inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke can also damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer."

She adds that "[t]his report makes it clear — quitting at any time gives your body a chance to heal the damage caused by smoking. It’s never too late to quit, but the sooner you do it, the better."

For more information on quitting smoking, see NIH’s Smoking Cessation website: http://health.nih.gov/topic/SmokingCessation

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