Last updated: November 21. 2013 2:10PM - 879 Views

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I have a solution for the national debt crisis: a penny donation every time doctors ask their patients to stop smoking!

Especially as a heart surgeon, I couldn’t even begin to count how many times each day my colleagues and I speak with patients whose chronic health conditions are either linked to or worsened by smoking. Project this to the entire country, and you’re talking about 8.6 million people with at least one serious illness impacted by smoking. That means for every person who dies of a smoking-related disease, 20 more are right behind them who suffer from a smoking-related illness.

Adding to the problem is that most agree it’s not getting better. An estimated 46.6 million people smoke cigarettes in the United States, and, even more alarming, a 2009 report from the American Lung Association found that 19.5 percent of high-school students are already stuck on the habit.

What is it that makes smoking so dangerous after all? Cigarette smoke contains almost 5,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. And, yes, smoking is responsible for 90 percent of lung-cancer deaths, but its effects on the heart are just as deadly. Many of those pesky 5,000 chemicals damage blood vessels as well as the lung. These damaged blood vessels build up a waxy substance – plaque – narrowing the channels blood travel through. Put it all together, and you have artherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries.

When the involved vessels are those that feed the heart muscle — the coronary arteries — we get coronary heart disease. Then, we all know what’s next: angina (chest pain), heart attacks, ambulance rides, and, if we intervene in time, emergency cardiac catheterizations, stents or bypass operations! While technology and protocols for placing a stent — a meshed metal bracket that holds the coronary arteries open — have improved, we know these life-saving devices must be placed as soon as possible after heart attacks start to minimize damage and save lives. Every second during a heart attack counts.

Quite frankly, smoking is not worth the risk.

That brings us to this week. Thursday is the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout, a day meant to encourage smokers to begin their journey toward a healthier life. By quitting, even for a day, smokers will take important steps toward improving their health.

Mark Twain once said “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” His sarcasm aside, as physicians, we understand that quitting is anything but easy. Going back to those 5,000 chemicals, many of them are addictive – highly addictive. Nicotine, the most addictive substance in tobacco, is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through your lungs, much like oxygen is. It then interferes with nerve cells, and, over time, the body grows accustomed to this interference. At the end of the day, nicotine affects nerves, blood cells, arteries and lungs, and the body grows to enjoy it. I told you quitting wasn’t easy!

It all starts with coming to the realization that you need to quit. When I talk to my patients, it’s a fairly simple case to make: The risks far outweigh the rewards. Smoking became popular in the early 20th century when we simply didn’t know about its hazards. Think of how much more we know about concussions today. With that knowledge, we’ve changed rules in sports, improved equipment and changed the way we treat and monitor people with head injuries. But when it comes to smoking, we still face nearly 60 million Americans who can’t put down cigarettes, cigars or pipes.

The resources to help you quit are out there. Whether it’s a patch, a pill, therapy or an encouraging family member, each person trying to quit is different. The key is finding the motivation. For some it’s making sure you’re around for your grandchildren’s weddings and birthdays. For others, it’s quitting with someone else so you build a support system. Whatever your motivation, take Thursday as the day to make it start. Prove Mark Twain wrong by making the 1,001st time the last time. Good luck!

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