Over the last 30 years, Dr. David Johnson has noticed fewer people identifying as smokers on new patient questionnaires. That’s the good news. But the bad news is the dangerous habit still wreaks havoc on the health of many Americans.
“It has such an impact on so many conditions we deal with as internal medicine specialists,” said Johnson, an internist with CMC Primary Care Little River. “It’s such a hard area for people to deal with.”
Each November, healthcare providers recognize Lung Cancer Awareness Month. That includes the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout on Nov. 15, the day many smokers try to give up cigarettes.
Breaking the habit isn’t easy, but it’s critical to improving one’s health.
In the United States, about 34 million adults still smoke, according to the American Cancer Society. Smoking continues to be the leading preventable cause of death, accounting for about 480,000 deaths annually.
When Johnson speaks with smokers who are trying to quit, he points out the benefits of kicking the habit. After a year without cigarettes, patients tend to have fewer bouts of coughing and shortness of breath. Within one to two years, their risk of having a heart attack drops, and within 5-10 years their risk of mouth and throat cancer plummets by 50%.
There are financial impacts, too. In the South, cigarettes cost about $6 per pack, and in the Northeast, that price nearly doubles.
“Think about what that means,” Johnson said. “At an average of, say, $5 a day on cigarettes, that’s $1,825 dollars a year that they’re spending in smoking. I don’t think people necessarily pay attention to the cost. Most people are aware of the risks of smoking, but sometimes it’s important to be pointing out the financial cost to them, and that doesn’t include the risks of lost days of work, insurance costs for increased premiums, medications they may need, and the additional smoking-related illness. So when we talk about that $1,800 a year, that’s just the cost of the cigarettes. So that other cost can go up quite a bit.”
Despite the obvious benefits, the quitting process is a struggle for many.
“Most of the methods … medication, with nicotine patches and things like that, generally the quit rates are still pretty low: 10% quit at six months,” Johnson said, adding that he encourages smokers to change their routines. “Have them focus on the habits they associate with their smoking and try to change those versus just saying, ‘I’m going to quit today.’”
Johnson said smokers aren’t aware of the patterns they follow.
“Most people have a cigarette in a way they can almost set their watch by,” he said. “Every morning at a certain time they do this. Every time after lunch, they tend to go out and smoke. They’re very time-specific cigarettes. Focusing on changing their habits around those times can be very beneficial to help people try and quit.”
Of course, the highest hurdle is just getting people to the point they’re ready to quit. When that happens, Johnson recommends smokers should talk with their primary care physician.
“That’s kind of the first step,” he said. “A lot of times when people have this desire to quit, I tell them the one important thing is you can never pick up another cigarette. You hear this a lot in AA … you can never have another drink. And smoking’s the same way.”