How tobacco damages the body
31 May marks World No Tobacco Day. Let’s take a look at some of the facts and figures about the effect that tobacco has on the body.
The truth around the figures
In terms of deaths attributable to tobacco in South Africa, around 8% of adults who lose their lives annually do so as a result of smoking. This amounts to more than 20,000 people each year – and this statistic does not include deaths from hookahs, e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and snuff, which have been linked to cancers such as oral cancer and squamous cell carcinoma, while it can also lead to bronchitis and other lung infections, and worsen the effects of tuberculosis.
But here’s the real shocker: locally, smoking and tobacco are responsible for 23% of vascular deaths, 20% of TB deaths, 58% of lung cancer deaths, and 37% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Globally, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death, killing some 7 million people per year, which will rise to 8 million by 2030. Smoking causes 30% of all cancer deaths. On average, smokers die a full decade before non-smokers.
The damage starts when you’re young
Teens and tweens are especially vulnerable to cigarettes and related products (remember, even vaping without tobacco releases harmful chemicals into the body). This is because of the age-old problem of peer pressure, but it may also be related to psychological issues and teen angst. The idea of a cigarette “to calm the nerves” is inculcated into our folklore by the media. Mental illness and depression have been linked to the propensity for smoking and tobacco products, and teen suicide is a real threat to contend with. Alcohol and drug abuse also tend to go hand-in-hand with tobacco addictions.
Even so, the young ones often learn this behaviour from their parents. It is difficult to banish smoking from your child’s body when you do not set the example because you yourself are a smoker. There is also some evidence to suggest that children who are the offspring of smoking parents tend to be more genetically predisposed to it, though there are numerous exceptions to this.
Unfortunately, the younger children start with tobacco, the more likely they will become addicted. Tobacco smoke has 60 known cancer-causing agents and is also laden with thousands of other substances that harm the body. And the damage begins immediately. Singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was diagnosed with early-stage emphysema before she died at the tender age of 27, after years of tobacco and other substance abuse. Her lung capacity had been reduced to just 70% by the time she died.
Smoking and tobacco have been linked to several cancers, including lung, mouth, throat (pharynx), larynx (voice box), oesophagus, bladder, pancreas, kidney, cervix and blood (leukaemia). Smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. It is also a leading cause of insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes. Smoking then has a knock-on effect on diabetes-related ailments such as kidney disease and eye problems. In addition, it has been linked to cataracts and macular degeneration.
Smoking and tobacco increase the likelihood of tooth and gum disease, as well as increased infertility in women and impotency in men. Smoking and tobacco abuse can also lead to pregnancy complications such as premature or underweight babies. Colds, flu, bronchitis, respiratory infections, lung disease, asthma, and emphysema are all severely aggravated or caused by cigarettes and tobacco.
The effects of this damage may not always be apparent at a young age, but unfortunately, smoking is like a credit card: buy now, pay later.
In addition, new research has emerged that heavy smokers are at least 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalised, and twice as likely to die, if they become infected with COVID-19. If there was ever an incentive to quit, this would be it!
The damage stops the minute you stop
While some effects of smoking cause permanent and irreparable damage to the body (such as emphysema), many of our body’s systems immediately begin to improve and get better when we stop smoking.
While withdrawal symptoms can be acute (tobacco products create an addictive craving every 20 minutes), these usually subside within the first two to three days. But the effects on your body are magical. Within 20 minutes, not only do you stop polluting the air, but your blood pressure and pulse decrease, and the temperature of your hands and feet rises. After 8 hours, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood return to normal and the oxygen levels in your blood go up. After 24 hours, you cut your risk of having a heart attack. After 48 hours, your nerve endings have begun to readjust to life without nicotine, and your senses of taste and smell begin to normalise. 72 hours after putting out the last puff, your bronchial tubes relax and, literally, breathe a sigh of relief. Within 1 to 3 months, your tolerance for exercise improves and your circulation gets better. Within 1 to 9 months, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, coughing, mucus and fatigue are relieved. Within a year, your risk of heart disease is cut in half. Within 5 years, your risk of stroke is on par with that of a non-smoker. Within 10 years, the chance of you dying from lung cancer is cut in half, and you are far less likely to develop cancer of the larynx, mouth oesophagus, kidney, bladder and pancreas.
Have a chat with your doctor about your smoking or that of your child. Get some advice on possible aids to help you quit, or even a referral to a counsellor who can help you work through the addiction and the associated psychological reasons for your dependence on tobacco.
Remember: it is absolutely never too late to quit.
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Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.