By Judy Rupp, columnist
Enid News and Eagle
James always gives an emphatic “no” when health professionals ask if he is a smoker. He has been a happy and smug non-smoker for longer than 30 years, and he sometimes tends to forget that he once smoked a pipe and even a few cigarettes and cigars. I didn’t inhale, he tells himself. I never smoked very often and I was never addicted. When I decided to start exercising, I simply decided not to smoke any more.
James’ decision was a smart one, and it probably tacked about 10 years onto his lifespan. But does his cloudy past as a light and intermittent smoker make any difference to his present and future health?
The word often given to current smokers is that it’s never too late to reap the benefits. And that’s generally true. Within a few hours, carbon monoxide levels in the blood decline while heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. Within a few months, an ex-smoker can expect improved circulation and lung function. Does that mean your body is forgiving you for all the toxins you have exposed it to over the years? Well, maybe not completely.
Ex-smokers are less likely than current ones to die of a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders or heart disease. But, like those who have never smoked, they still get those diseases and die.
In one study of 600 patients referred for lung cancer surgery, 16 percent had been smoke-free for 20 to 30 years, and 21 percen; smoke-free for 10 to 20 years. Only 11 percent were current smokers.
Probably more important than the number of years since you stopped smoking is the age at which you quit. According to a study published in The Lancet, women who quit smoking before age 40 avoided 90 percent of the risk of early death while those who quit before 30 avoided 97 percent.
“Chipper” is a slang term for heroin users who try to avoid addiction by using small doses occasionally. The term is now being used as well for light, intermittent smokers. Chippers smoke less than five cigarettes a day and don’t smoke every day–usually only on social occasions such as in bars, night clubs or at parties.
With anti-smoking regulations that have come in effect over recent years, light smoking or social smoking is becoming increasingly prevalent. Recent surveys indicate that as many as 15 million Americans now follow that kind of smoking pattern.
The health risks of light and intermittent smoking are not very well studied, but results from prospective studies indicate that they are substantial. How about addiction? Former heavy smokers who try to cut back to light, intermittent smoking may do so for a brief period before going back to their old smoking habits. High school or college students who think they can smoke to look cool are probably fooling themselves if they think they can avoid becoming hooked.
Many cigar smokers fit into the category of intermittent smokers. They smoke for pleasure but not as frequently as the typical pack-a-day cigarette smoker. And most say they don’t inhale.
Cigars contain the same toxins and carcinogens as cigarettes. They have more tobacco, take longer to smoke and generate more smoke per unit. They produce more carbon monoxide per gram and have higher nitrate content. Persons who smoke cigars regularly are vulnerable to the same cancers that afflict cigarette smokers. And those who smoke several cigars a day and inhale deeply have an even higher rate of cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders.
Many persons who smoke only cigars claim they never inhale, but the smoke has an alkaline pH and nicotine that can be readily absorbed through the mouth and throat. As a result, mortality rates for oral and esophageal cancers are the same for cigar as for cigarette smokers. Cigar smokers who do not inhale have a lower risk of lung and laryngeal cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
For pipe smoking, there is a similarity in health effects. Anything that cools the smoke, such as meerschaum clay or a water pipe, merely encourages the smoker to inhale more deeply and cause more damage to the lungs and cardiovascular system. If a smoker does not inhale, the nicotine is absorbed through the mouth and throat, altering the health risks but not eliminating them.
No matter how or when you do it, smoking is a dangerous habit and a hard-to-break addiction. While the risk is probably dose dependent, it is substantial at all levels.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.