It is difficult to imagine an activity that causes more slow-but-terrible harm to the body than smoking tobacco. Yet people choose to smoke and spend money in the process. The links between smoking tobacco and a whole range of disease have been known for many years. People continue to smoke, for various reasons. Some say it gives them an enjoyable “buzz” or helps them relax. Others like to copy friends or celebrities, or are persuaded by advertising. A few people joke that they like to support the farmers who grow tobacco or the corner shops that sell it. Some people even say that they need “something to do with their hands”.
Tobacco is made from the leaves of the tobacco plant and is smoked in cigarettes, cigars, pipes and in other ways. (Other substances can be smoked too, such as the leaves of the cannabis plant.) The smoke from burning tobacco contains over 4,000 chemicals. More than 40 of these are carcinogenic, which means that they cause cancer. Many others are harmful and irritate the delicate linings of the mouth, nose, airways and lungs. A chemical called carbon monoxide gets into the blood and lowers its ability to carry vital oxygen around the body.
But the substance in tobacco that smokers “need” is nicotine. This affects the body in many ways, such as speeding heartbeat and raising blood pressure. It is an addictive drug. Once the body has experienced nicotine, it wants more and more. If the nicotine is taken away, the body suffers restlessness, trembling and other effects, although these are temporary.
ILLNESS AND DISEASE
There is not enough room here to list all the diseases linked to smoking tobacco. Some of the main ones are:
Atherosclerosis, which is stiffening and blockage with fatty substances of the arteries (blood vessels).
In the heart’s arteries, atherosclerosis can cause heart diseases of various kinds, including heart attacks.
In the brain’s arteries, atherosclerosis can lead to stroke or brain haemorrhage (bleeding).
In other parts, atherosclerosis may reduce blood supply so much that the part, such as a foot, may have to be amputated (cut off).
Cancers of the lung, mouth, throat, voice box, gullet (throat), pancreas, cervix, kidney, bladder and other parts.
Lung diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia and emphysema, with the higher risk of infection by microbes (germs).
A pregnant woman who smokes risks her baby being born:
Far too early, in a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion.
Very small, with the problems of low birthweight.
At greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which is also known as “cot death”.
THE SIZE OF THE PROBLEM
In Europe, the effects of smoking cause about one death in six of the entire population. It is estimated that every cigarette shortens a smoker’s life by six minutes. If a smoker gives up smoking, the risks begin to lessen almost at once. There are many ways to give up, from chewing nicotine gum to hypnosis. Apart from a gradual return to normal health, the benefits of giving up include no more stale tobacco smells on clothes and hair, less ash and smell from used ashtrays, an improved sense of taste and more money to spend.
In recent years, scientists have studied the health risks of passive smoking, which is breathing in the tobacco smoke of other smokers. This can happen even in a house where people smoke only occasionally. Passive smoking increases the risks of health problems including those of the lungs, heart and brain.
Some smokers say that they know the harm they are doing to their bodies, but it is their own choice. Increasingly, non-smokers are saying that they do not want to suffer too, by passive smoking. They also do not want the increased fire hazards linked with smoking. In recent years, smoking has been banned in more and more places, including planes, trains, buses, shops, restaurants, clubs, cinemas, theatres, pubs, shopping centres and even on city streets.