The Medical Minute: Great American Smokeout 2009

November 17, 2009

By John Messmer

This month, how would you like to do something that will:

  • make you wealthier
  • give you more energy
  • improve your skin
  • improve your long term health
  • help you to live longer and better
  • make you smell better
  • reduce health care costs
  • improve the environment
  • reduce the risk of disease in those around you, and
  • make you proud of yourself?

Sound too good to be true? If you quit smoking you will do all those things.

Nov. 19 is the date for this year’s Great American Smokeout. Since the Surgeon General identified the dangers of smoking, Americans have gradually quit, yet about one in five still smoke. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 4,000 young adolescents start smoking every day and 6 percent of middle school students are smokers.

Smoking is not just a habit, it’s an addiction. There are some people who apparently do not have an addiction and smoke “socially,” but they are not common. For someone to tolerate inhaling irritating smoke and to be willing to stand out in the snow and rain to smoke, it has to be for more than the scintillating conversation of the other smokers that compels them.

In fact, for those who do have the addiction, there are specific nerve cells in the brain to which the nicotine attaches. When nicotine hooks up to the nerve, it signals a pleasure center in the brain. When the nicotine leaves the nerve after a time, the pleasure center lets you know by reminding you to have another smoke. This does not occur in everyone, but you won’t know if it could happen to you until you try smoking. But then you have started the addiction process.

The first step to giving up smoking is to decide to do it. Fortunately there is a lot of help available. It is a process. Even quitting cold turkey requires a plan to deal with the withdrawal and getting past the desire to smoke in all the customary times and places you always smoke.

On this year’s Great American Smokeout, if you have thought about quitting, why not give it a try? To prepare, go to http://1800quitnow.cancer.gov to hear from others who have quit and learn about the support and education available free from the government. The site also has links to smoking cessation support sites for all 50 states. Another resource is the sponsor of the Great American Smokeout, the American Cancer Society at http://www.cancer.org/docroot/subsite/greatamericans/smokeout.asp. Also check out the quick tips at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Health Information Library.

Your doctor or other health care practitioner can help, too, by supporting your quitting through medication. There is no medicine that will make you stop smoking – that is up to you – but it might help once you commit to quitting.

A pack-a-day smoker will save about $1,800 per year by quitting. Your clothes, car, hair and breath will stop smelling like smoke. Your skin will look better as your circulation improves. You will have more energy. People around you will not have the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke. You will reduce your carbon footprint and save health care costs. Give it a try this month, even for just a day.

John Messmer is associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated November 23, 2009