For most of us, we could remember a time when smoking cigarettes was a fixture of adulthood. People could smoke in restaurants, on airplanes, even, in hospitals. A long series of new laws and regulations has put an end to most of those practices, but smoking hasn’t completely disappeared from society. Despite serious legal and financial penalties, millions of people still die from lung cancer annually, much of it caused by smoking tobacco.
In the 20th century, almost 100 million people died from smoking. Most tobacco users in the past had little or no idea that smoking was a fatal habit. In fact, in the first half of the century, cigarette makers often hired physicians to endorse their product. Although industry insiders knew that smoking was dangerous in the 1950’s, it wasn’t until the 1964 report by the U.S. Surgeon General that highlighted the links between smoking and lung cancer, did the public understand the dangers of tobacco use.
Although many consider the 1964 report the turning point in the war on smoking, cigarette smoking continued to rise through the 1960s and 1970s, until it peaked at 630 billion cigarettes smoked in 1982. Much of this is attributable to marketing offensives by the marketing companies that targeted young people who were more amenable to promotions and would acquire the habit of smoking more readily.
Dangers of Tobacco Use
Throughout the 19th century, lung cancer was extremely rare; most doctors could expect to see only one case in their lifetime. However, with the spread of smoking among urban populations, this changed dramatically, and by the 1940’s, there was a lung cancer epidemic around the world. Although public health officials strongly suspected that the cause of this epidemic was tobacco use, cigarette manufacturers launched a widespread campaign to discredit any critical scientific studies.
This propaganda was so effective that even after decades of published reports linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer, much of the medical community was unconvinced. Even as late as 1960, only one-third of all American doctors firmly believed that smoking was unhealthy.
It is estimated that there is one death per 3 to 4 million smoked cigarettes. This produces almost 1.5 million lung cancer deaths annually. By 2030, the number of deaths related to smoking every year is expected to reach 2 million, in spite of public health initiatives across the globe.
Tobacco use transfers many cancer-causing chemicals into the user’s body. These include benzopyrene, arsenic, chromium, nickel and many other aromatic hydrocarbons. Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer among smokers because lungs are the initial entry point for these carcinogens.
The active ingredient in tobacco is nicotine. Nicotine produces pleasure while diminishing stress and anxiety by changing the levels of dopamine or noradrenaline in the brain. However, your brain becomes used to this “rush” and soon becomes dependent on nicotine. Without continued use, you are likely to experience anxiety, depression and irritability, making nicotine a highly addictive substance.
Public Health Initiatives to Curb Smoking
Public furor at the tobacco companies reached a peak in 1994 when executives testified to Congress that their products were not addictive and that there was no proof that they caused fatal illnesses. The resulting public outcry eventually led to fines of more than $206 billion that were used to fund medical bills for smokers and programs that prevented kids from smoking.
In addition to major federal initiatives, states and city governments around the country also passed new laws that banned smoking in many public areas including bars, restaurants and sporting events. Public information programs have also helped educate the public about the dangers of cigarette smoking.
Last month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) implemented a new rule that banned smoking in public housing facilities. This new ban is expected to save government housing agencies almost $153 million annually in repairs and health care costs.
Drop in Smoking Rates
In 1970, almost 42 percent of all U.S. adults smoked. A survey in 2015 found that only 15 percent of the adult population had smoked recently, and that was a significant drop from 17 percent only the year before. It is estimated that the public health programs intended to stop smoking have saved almost 8 million lives or 157 million years of life. Roughly, this translates into 20 more years of life for everyone who quits smoking.
While these are major public health victories, there is still a significant smoking population in the U.S. In the U.S. there are almost 38 million smokers, and more than 480,000 Americans die from cancer, heart disease and other ailments related to smoking. There has been a slight drop in the number of teen tobacco users; 23 percent of teens smoked in 2014, while 23.3 percent did so in 2012.
Electronic Cigarette Use On the Rise
Although cigarette smoking has declined in recent years, the introduction of electronic cigarettes or “vaping” has launched another potentially deadly epidemic of nicotine use. Vaping involves heating a liquid mixture of nicotine and other chemicals. There is limited research on the health effects of using electronic cigarettes, but there is extensive research on the effects of nicotine use.
Although the majority of the public believes that vaping is safer than cigarettes, nicotine in any form can be highly addictive. At high levels, nicotine can be lethal, and even at non-lethal levels, nicotine can do lasting harm to the human body. Nicotine may produce changes to young brains and may be a gateway to smoking and other forms of tobacco use. One study found that 31 percent of electronic cigarette users began smoking within six months.
Some people—even some public health officials—may recommend electronic cigarettes to smokers as a way to stop smoking, but there are carcinogens in vaping. These cancer-causing chemicals and the potential for more dangerous tobacco use make vaping a public health risk, especially for young people.
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