Almost 20 years ago when I started my first job in tobacco research, I told my new boss that I’d like to get a sense of whether smoking really was so bad for health. I asked him if he could give me something to read to help me understand the health effects. Professor Michael Russell – one of the world’s top researchers into tobacco addiction – was clearly a bit irritated by my question, and proceeded to dump four U.S. Surgeon General’s Reports and two Royal College of Physicians reports on my desk. Each one had about three hundred pages. He said, “If that’s not enough for you I have more in my office”. Since that time many more volumes have been published demonstrating the many ways in which smoking is harmful to health. I can’t pretend to have read all of them. After a while the sheer weight of the evidence becomes so convincing, one doesn’t need any more. The more important task is to communicate it to the public. The simplest way to put it is that if you smoke and keep smoking there’s a 50-50 chance it will kill you. However, I prefer to compare it to the game of drawing straws. A smoker who continues smoking is forced to take a chance like drawing one of 4 straws. Two are long straws, meaning they won’t lose any years of life due to their smoking (one because they were unfortunately destined to die young of other causes, and the other because they were fortunate to have a genetic makeup and other factors making them less prone to lethal smoking-caused diseases). One is a medium length straw, meaning they will lose 10 years of life due to smoking, and the other is a short straw, meaning they will lose 30 years of life due to smoking. Of course no-one knows what straw they are going to get until its too late. If you had to estimate the average risk (30 years, plus 10 years, divided by 4) it is that a smoker will lose 10 years of life as compared with never smoking (but with a 25% chance of dieing so young they never get to see their grandkids grow up).
Some people say they don’t want to live into their 80s anyway. It is important for smokers to know that those years of life lost due to smoking are healthy years, not sick years. Smokers have fewer years in health (free from disability) but also more years in sickness/disability. For every person who is killed by smoking each year in the US (over 400,000 per year) there are 20 still alive who suffer a serious smoking-caused illness that year (ranging from a chest infection to a non-fatal heart attack).
One other simplified way to think about it is that each cigarette takes about 11 minutes off your life. As it takes about that long to smoke the cigarette, it means that every minute spent smoking shortens your lifespan by approximately that same amount of time.
There is no other single behavior that has such a massive impact on one's health, and this is the reason I chose to focus my career on smoking cessation. Psychologists don’t frequently have the opportunity to save a life. I figure that every person I can help to quit smoking gains about 10 healthy years of life, and that’s not bad for a days work! These massive effects of smoking on health are the main reason most smokers want to quit. In future posts I’ll discuss the ways you can increase your chances of successfully quitting. Talk to you soon.
p.s. If you want more information on smoking and health, I recommend this site: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/sgr/sgr_2004/sgranimation/flash/index.html