Stamp Out Smoking: Take Action Today

Co-authored by Beth Hoffman.

There's a killer at large in our communities linked to 1 out of 5 deaths in the United States. Is this killer on the FBI's Most Wanted List? No. Why not? Because the killer is tobacco, the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. In recognition of the devastating toll that smoking takes on the health of the American people, 34 years ago the third Thursday in November was designated as the Great American Smokeout. On this occasion, smokers are urged to quit for at least 24 hours and are also encouraged to construct a plan for sustained cessation.

In 1964, the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health contained important scientific evidence documenting tobacco's health damaging effects. This landmark document provided thefoundation for lifesaving public health and policy interventions that have resulted in a 50% decrease in smoking rates in the United States over the past 45 years.

This significant decline in the smoking rates of Americans over the past four decades, combined with tough public policies in the United States such as FDA regulation of tobacco products, increasing taxes on cigarettes, and prohibiting smoking in public places as well banning tobacco advertising on television and the sale of these products to minors, has led to a perception by many that smoking is no longer a serious public health threat in our country. But the truth is that cigarette smoking still accounts for 443,000 premature deaths annually in America - including 49,400 in nonsmokers from second hand smoke exposure. Each year, primarily because of exposure to secondhand smoke, an estimated 3,000 nonsmoking Americans die of lung cancer, more than 46,000 (range: 22,700-69,600) die of heart disease, and about 150,000-300,000 children younger than 18 months have lower respiratory tract infections. Additionally, for every person who dies from smoking, 20 more people suffer from at least one serious tobacco-related illness. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, chronic pulmonary illnesses and many other health conditions as well as the risk for premature and low birth weight babies. Smokeless tobacco, cigars, and pipes also have deadly consequences, including lung, larynx, esophageal, and oral cancers. Coupled with this enormous health toll is the significant economic burden of tobacco use -- more than $96 billion per year in medical expenditures and another $97 billion per year resulting from lost productivity.1

Despite these risks, approximately 43.4 million adults smoke cigarettes in the United States. A 2008 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that approximately 21% of US adults are smokers, marking the first increase in smoking rates since 1994. Furthermore, 20% of high school students in the U.S. are current cigarette smokers. Every day approximately 3,900 teenagers smoke their first cigarette, and one third of them will die of their addiction as adults.2

Stamping out smoking requires a combination of social and personal responsibility. A 2007 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report presented a blueprint for action to "reduce smoking so substantially that it is no longer a public health problem for our nation." The two-pronged strategy for achieving this goal includes not only strengthening and fully implementing currently proven tobacco control measures at the Federal, state and local levels, but also changing the regulatory landscape to permit policy innovations.

Comprehensive tobacco control programs involve coordinated efforts to establish smoke-free policies and social norms, to promote and assist tobacco users to quit, and to prevent initiation of tobacco use. This approach combines educational, clinical, regulatory, economic, and social strategies.

The Great American Smokeout's focus every year is on individual action -- encouraging smokers to stop for 24 hours and also to map a course of action for sustained cessation. Research demonstrates that people under the age of 50 who quit smoking can cut their risk of dying over the next 15 years by 50% as compared with those people who continue to smoke. Scientists have shown that quitting smoking can increase life expectancy -- smokers who quit at age 35 gain an average of eight years of life expectancy; those who quit at age 55 gain about five years; and even long-term smokers who quit at 65 gain three years. The bottom line: it is never too late to quit. For example, it has been shown that a person's heart rate and blood pressure drop a mere 20 minutes after stopping smoking.

Unfortunately, smoking cessation is not as simple as just making the choice to quit. Nicotine, the main ingredient in cigarettes, is an addictive drug that produces significant changes in brain chemistry to cause craving as happens with illicit drug use.2 Among current U.S. adult smokers, 70% report that they want to quit completely, and millions more have attempted unsuccessfully to stop smoking.3 Tobacco dependence is a chronic condition that requires a multifaceted treatment approach. Research shows that counseling, medications, and the support of family and friends are critical components of successful smoking cessation programs.

So if you or a loved one smoke and are ready to quit, take a critical first step today towards a healthier future and join with thousands of other people in the United States to make today's Great American Smokeout a lifesaving success!

Listed below are some helpful resources to help stamp out smoking:

1 American Cancer Society. 5 Nov 2009. American Cancer Society Marks 34th Great American Smokeout by Encouraging Smokers to Quit.
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 16 Sept 2009 Smoking Cessation.
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette Smoking Among Adults--United States, 2000. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report [serial online] 2002;51(29):642-645

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D. (ret.) is the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., a Clinical Professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, and Chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center. She served for more than 20 years in health leadership positions in the Federal government, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, as a White House Advisor on Health, and as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. She is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association.

Beth Hoffman graduated magna cum laude from Brown University. She is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a former health policy fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.