Despite decline in use, negative impacts of tobacco still a problem
Some of my earliest memories from when I was about 5 or 6 years old include being at my grandparents’ house during the holidays.
Typically, during the evenings, there would be a gathering of eight to 10 uncles, aunts, and older cousins, all sitting around the kitchen table, smoking and drinking, making a magnificent amount of noise from their jokes, stories, laughter, and friendly insults. I loved watching my family interact and I sat mesmerized by their ability to tell stories and laugh for hours on end. By 9 or 10 at night, the cigarette smoke in my grandparent’s modest living room hung all the way to the floor, to a point where you could barely see across the room.
Many years later, I remember my Grandpa Norman, a strong, proud Finn, unable to walk for more than 10 feet without having to stop to try to catch his breath. COPD and Emphysema, likely brought on by a lifetime of smoking, robbed him of his ability to breathe. As it got harder and harder for him to be active, he eventually wasn’t active. He could no longer hunt or fish, or do many of the other things he once enjoyed. Stormin’ Norman spent most of his final years confined to a nursing home bed.
Through the years, the older generation of my family passed away one by one. Funny, loving, wonderful people all gone but the fond memories of them. Generally speaking, tobacco sped up most of their journeys.
My story is certainly not unique. I know many, if not most, of you also have stories of loved ones who passed too soon because of their tobacco use. Unquestionably, smoking wasn’t unusual for that older generation. It was probably more unusual to not smoke in those days. Cigarettes were ingrained as part of the culture, normalized in everything from sports to entertainment to advertising.
Today, tobacco’s impact on smokers is well known. Lung cancer, COPD, heart disease, emphysema, strokes are just a few of the common risks of long-term smoking. We’ve all heard the statistics.
- Smoking kills half of all smokers who continue to smoke
- At least 1 in 4 of those who die are aged 35-69
- A smoker who doesn’t quit loses 10 years of their life on average
- Smoking is responsible for about 85% of lung cancers
- Smokers are:- 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer
– 2 to 4 times more likely to have a heart attack
– 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have a stroke
- Smokers are generally more anxious, stressed and depressed than non-smokers
Working for Heartland Hospice, we see the impact of tobacco daily. Many of our patients have diagnoses that were caused or exasperated by tobacco use. Sadly, we often give care to people in their relatively young 60s who could have had many more years with their families. But tobacco’s grip is strong. We’ll often see patients who need to be urged to not smoke near their oxygen tank or will go outside to smoke in sub-zero weather. The urge to smoke outweighs all else.
Unfortunately, tobacco use often gets started as a learned behavior. Very few people start smoking in a vacuum. Usually, it starts with young people trying to act like adults, mimicking behaviors seen from family members or friends. In fact, nearly 95 percent of addicted adult smokers started before the age of 21.
The good news is that tobacco use is steadily decreasing. In Minnesota, the average number of adult smokers has gone from around 22.1% in 1999 to 13.8% in 2018. The Indoor Clean Air Act, Tobacco 21, raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco, the high tax rate and increased cost of tobacco products, and anti-smoking campaigns have all contributed to the declines.
However, there are still challenges. After 17 straight years of steadily declining percentages in teenaged smoking, there has been a bump recently, fueled by vaping, flavored tobacco, and e-cigarettes. Fortunately, a measured response by local, state, and federal government raised the purchase age to 21, making it more difficult for high schooler to obtain. The National Academy of Medicine estimates that Tobacco 21 will lead to enormous health gains, including a 25 percent reduction in smoking initiation among 15-to-17-year-olds.
More good news is that studies show that people who quit smoking can see improvements in their health, almost from the moment they quit smoking. Within a year of quitting, a person’s risk of heart disease is half of someone who continues to smoke. Plus, the money saved from not smoking is nothing to sneeze — or cough — at.
We’ve come a long way since the days cigarette machines were common in grocery stores, restaurants, bars, or like the one I remember in the teacher’s lounge in Pequot Lakes High School. Long gone are the cheap aluminum ash trays on every table at McDonald’s. It’s a beautiful thing to not come home smelling like smoke after going out to eat.
My hope is that someday, long term use of tobacco will be a thing of the past, so that my kids, and everyone’s kids, don’t lose loved ones before their time because of a largely preventable bad habit.