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When quitting is good, just this once

columns Updated: May 26, 2012 21:52 IST
Sanchita Sharma

I don’t smoke but all my friends do, which pretty much makes me a secondhand smoke addict. You may think this sounds a bit like former US president Bill Clinton saying, “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn’t inhale and never tried it again”, but it’s not. I do inhale, but don’t care for it either way. I don’t like enough to want to start smoking or dislike it enough to banish smokers.

But I know enough about tobacco addiction to advise my son to never smoke. For now, he thinks smoking is stupid. Which is good.

For stupid it is. Tobacco is the only legally marketed substance in the world that kills the user when used as directed. Every cigarette smoked damages the lungs and the heart in ways that do not show up until later in life. People over 35 lose three months of their life to every year of continued smoking.

Despite a ban on smoking in public places in India, the number of smokers is going up each year. There are currently 250 million smokers in India, half of whom — 125 million — will die prematurely of a tobacco-related disease, says the World Health Organisation projections.

The problem with nicotine, as you have guessed, is that it’s highly addictive. Smokers find it hard to quit cigarettes because nicotine exposure alters the “hard-wiring” of the brain, causing addiction. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that nicotine changes the molecular and metabolic structure of the nerve cell membranes, which are the functional communication centres of the brain. These structural changes were more evident in men than in women.

But addiction does not mean that it is impossible to stop, it just means it’s harder to quit. It not clear why some attempts to stop succeed and others do not: smoking fewer cigarettes, not needing to smoke first thing in the morning and not suffering from mental health problems or other addictions, make it easier to quit.

Almost nine out of ten (88%) of smokers who want to quit do so for health reasons, with around half of all smokers make at least one attempt to stop in a given year. On an average, people need six attempts to quit before they actually succeed.

Many people quit on their own, but those who find it difficult should consider visiting a tobacco cessation clinic that offer a combination of counselling, nicotine replacement therapy such as nicotine patches or gums, and prescription drugs such as bupropion hydrochloride.

Short bouts of exercise — such as a 5-minutes walk — can also help smokers resist the urge to light up, shows a British research. Exercise also helps smokers manage withdrawal symptoms and resist the urge to smoke, they report in the scientific journal Addiction. It also reduced withdrawal symptoms such as stress, anxiety and poor concentration. Exercise further prevents smokers who quit from gaining weight.

Most people wake up to the hazards of smoking after getting alarming health reports. Smoking is the biggest trigger of heart attacks in people under 40 years: nicotine makes the blood more prone to clotting, which can block arteries and cause a heart attack even in healthy people. A review of heart disease incidence in 21 countries showed that people under the age of 40 had a five times greater risk of heart attacks if they smoked.

What’s good is that health benefits accrue within 48 hours of quitting. Nicotine craving goes away in a week, with health benefits from stopping smoking occurring within a month. The body eliminates carbon monoxide and nicotine within 48 hours, with lung function improving within 48 hours. Other benefits, such as heart risk, take longer, depending on how long you have smoked.

That’s reason enough to consider quitting. It’s simple math: the sooner you give up, the longer you’ll live.