The evidence for the ill effects of smoking keeps getting stronger and scarier. If one were to construct a balance sheet of tobacco’s pros and cons it would look much worse than the one Bernie Madoff was hiding from his investors and the SEC.
Making the Risk of Smoking Personal
I was recently talking with one of my IT consultants and we started discussing tobacco use since he thought his smoking might have been one reason he’d been denied health insurance. What he – and many people – don’t realize is that the major health risk from smoking is not lung cancer, but how damaging it is to the heart and blood vessels, i.e., your cardiovascular system:
- On Monday USA Today reported on a study showing that smoking cigarettes doubles a person’s risk of stroke.
- Studies have shown that second-hand smoke increases the risk of heart attacks – which is why many states and even the country of Ireland have prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants.
- When Ireland banned smoking in pubs the rate of hospital admissions for heart attacks dropped by more than 10% in the following year.
Additional evidence about the risks of smoking is pervasive – sort of like finding a piece of hay in a bale of hay – including a report from the US Surgeon General indicating that smoking ONE CIGARETTE can increase the risk of heart disease as well as cancer. In scientific terminology this means that there is no lower limit or threshold below which tobacco causes no harm.
Similarly, the concept that tobacco in forms other than cigarettes aren’t so bad is, well BS: cigars and “chewing tobacco” are bad for you too – just in different ways depending on how they are used and how often. And the propaganda that hookahs (smoking flavored tobacco through a water pipe) are safe is hooey – smoking a hookah for an hour can be like smoking ONE HUNDRED (100) cigarettes.
So after going through these facts to help my IT consultant put smoking cigarettes into perspective, (i.e., tobacco damages your heart and blood vessels etc.) – and adding a few points about how smoking increases a person’s risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, other cancers besides lung cancer, and sexual dysfunction – I prioritizing the bad things he could possibly be doing to himself:
- Crystal Meth - which rewires your brain in very bad ways that are hard or impossible to reverse
- Having unprotected sex with multiple IV drug abusers
- Smoking cigarettes…. or using any form of tobacco
The Positive Attributes of Tobacco
The positive side of tobacco’s “balance sheet” is pretty slim:
- Income for tobacco farmers
- Income for companies that make and sell cigarettes and other tobacco products
- There are a few rare conditions where nicotine may help prevent flare-ups
- It’s “cool” and it makes people appear older. (Smoking actually does make people look older by causing skin changes on the hands and face, including wrinkles that can make a 35-year-old smoker look 45 or 50.)
So adding this all up into a Bernie Madoff-type balance sheet it seems that smoking cigarettes is like:
- Driving without a seat belt – and twenty bowling balls and big pieces of broken glass in your passenger seat
- Sleeping with a loaded gun in the waistband of your pajamas
- Scuba diving or flying an airplane without lessons
- Riding a motorcycle while juggling
Like smoking, there will be people who might be able to do these things for years without ever developing a “problem.” But I suspect that most smokers don’t understand the real risks they are taking, and certainly wouldn’t take similar risks for themselves or their children by doing other things like replacing their smoke detectors with oil lamps.
And lastly, I believe healthcare professionals are not doing enough to help people stop smoking. Kicking the nicotine addiction isn’t easy, but there are ways to help: counseling, support groups, prescription and OTC medications, and even financial incentives from health insurers and employer including higher (or lower) insurance premiums. As an additional incentive, some companies are not hiring people who smoke - although some states have passed laws protecting smokers’ off-duty “rights” to such self-injurious conduct. So unless you’re living in an alternative universe where the job market is “smoking,” putting yourself at a disadvantage for getting a job (or a better job) because you smoke doesn’t seem like a very good career move. It might be better to have committed felony financial fraud since at least that demonstrates some math skills and not just the ability to suck in poisons.