Tomorrow is the 29th Great American Smokeout, an event that I can’t let pass without a comment.
Growing from the thoughts and efforts of a handful of people, the Smokeout has grown over the years into a signature event of significant importance and national interest. It is part of the reason that today there are more former smokers living than current smokers. It is part of the reason that many people have been able to quit smoking, and it is part of the reason that many needless, premature deaths have been avoided as people heeded the message and actually stopped smoking.
This is not just another “Day” that has some recognition. It is a signal, perhaps a call, to those who want to stop smoking. Having a plan to quit smoking is one of the crucial components that helps people to actually stop smoking. Part of that plan includes a specific quit date.
You don’t just decide to stop smoking one day and move on the next. Yes, we all know people who are able to quit “cold turkey.” But those folks are in the minority.
For most smokers, it takes a commitment and a plan to achieve success. After all, smoking is an addiction associated with all sorts of familiar cues which are part of our daily lives. It is also something that may have a supporting cast of characters that can include friends who are smokers and family members who smoke.
So changing the habit doesn’t come easily for those and many other reasons.
I am asked frequently what advice I have for people who want to quit. First, I suggest they get as much information as they can. Resources such as the American Cancer Society’s website at www.cancer.org and our call center (800 ACS 2345) are places you can go to for information and help. If you want to read information, the website is for you. If you would rather talk to a real, live person who has your interests at heart, then call the call center which is open 24/7.
The next step is to take the information you get from the website or the phone call and develop a plan. Part of that plan, as I mentioned above, may be to focus on a particular “quit day.” That’s where the Great American Smokeout comes in. It offers you and many others a target date that provides a lot of support with public recognition of the serious issues you face as a smoker.
Another part of the plan may be to use a nicotine substitute, such as a patch, gum, or another alternative nicotine delivery system available from your physician. It may include the use of medication prescribed by your doctor.
You also should take advantage of a quitline, such as the one available through the American Cancer Society. This is essentially a telephone counseling service that can help you through the commitment and stages of quitting. Although you might question whether or not this can help you, the fact is that research has demonstrated that quitlines, when properly staffed, can increase the chances you will be able to stick to your plan and your commitment.
But then comes what may be the most important advice of all: you may not be successful on the first try. It may take many tries to get it done. So don’t consider yourself a failure if you can’t quit on the first go-round. Remember, as I mentioned earlier, this is an addiction that is very, very real. It is supported by all sorts of cues in the environment that will work to lead you astray. So, for you, trying again may be essential to your success.
You also need to think about the positive benefits if you succeed in your efforts. You may get to see your grandchildren. You may live past your 70th birthday. You may be able to taste your food again. You may be able to walk further with less shortness of breath, or perhaps less leg pain when you walk. You may avoid a heart attack in the next couple of months. You may live longer than you would have if you didn’t smoke.
Yes, it’s true that your risk of lung cancer will not go away. That benefit is limited to those who never smoked in the first place (a hard fact to face, but true nonetheless). But you will not increase your risk any further, which is what will happen if you don’t make the effort to quit now.
My core advice to people is fairly simple: if you don’t smoke, don’t; if you do, stop. You will be much better off if you stop than if you continue.
Then there is the issue of people like me who don’t smoke. I don’t have to worry about smoke in the workplace. Apparently, hard to believe, many people still do have that problem. I still occasionally have to deal with smoke in the restaurants I visit.
For example, as I write this I am on my way to Chicago. I will probably have dinner in one of my favorite restaurants there, and there will be cigarette and cigar smoke in the bar where I will have my dinner. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. The good folks in Chicago are still trying to work that one out.
If I had gone to my other meeting opportunity in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t have that problem since California is smoke-free in restaurants, and has been so for many years.
But I’m not as bad off as the folks who have to work in a smoke filled environment.
Smoke contains a lot of damaging chemicals, some that cause cancer and many that don’t. When a smoker inhales the smoke, some of those damaging chemicals get left behind—in their lungs, not yours. You suffer, when you are a non-smoker in a smoking environment, by inhaling a lot of unprocessed smoke with more of the bad stuff right off the end of the cigarette, in addition to the material that has been processed in the smoker’s lungs. Sort of what some would call a “double whammy”.
If you work in one of these smoking environments you, your body and your health are not off the hook. Quite to the contrary: you are suffering from someone else’s habit.
More and more people are convinced they shouldn’t have to be exposed to cigarette smoke, and pay for someone else’s habit with their health, and possibly their lives. That’s reflected in the success of measures to increase cigarette taxes, increasing numbers of smoke-free workplaces, and decreasing tolerance of smoking in places of public accommodation.
Maybe the best recent success story is New York City. The world didn’t fall apart the day New York went smoke free. California didn’t fall into the ocean when they went smoke free. And the list goes on and on.
One of the stories that doesn’t get much replay is what happened in Helena, Montana a couple of years ago. Helena went smoke free. We talk frequently about some of the immediate benefits of stopping smoking, such as a decrease in the rate of heart attacks. Helena put the issue directly front and center.
As reported in the British Medical Journal, the number of admissions for heart attacks decreased significantly after the town banned smoking in public places. But for other reasons, the ban was overturned, and guess what happened? The rate of heart attacks increased soon after.
So let’s celebrate the Great American Smokeout for what it has been, what it is, and what it can be: a very successful, long term public health and public relations campaign that reminds people of the dangers of smoking, the need to quit, providing the support and the incentive for those who want to quit, and a constant reminder of what we need to accomplish.
And if you are a smoker, there is no better day than the Great American Smokeout to make a commitment that next year, on the third Thursday of November, you too will no longer be a smoker.
Make the decision, make the commitment, and go for it! We wish you every success in your effort, and don’t forget that we are here to help.