Tobacco use: What are the risks and how can I quit?

December 19, 2023

Primary Care Lungs and Breathing Cancer
Quit Smoking written on a white notebook to remind you

The health risks associated with tobacco – whether via cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products – are well established. Tobacco smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and worldwide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco use can increase the risk of cancer of the throat, mouth or lungs. Smoking, in particular, can also contribute to the development of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease including emphysema and other debilitating lung conditions.

“There are no positives associated with tobacco use, period,” says Aida Atiq, M.D., a primary care physician with Riverside’s Medical Care Center - Mercury West practice. “Smoking cessation is associated with clear health benefits and should always be a major health care goal.”

The many risks of smoking

While many smokers may be aware of the long-term damage cigarettes can pose to their own health, the risks of smoking are, in fact, much broader. When you smoke, you affect the health of everyone around you.

Risks to infants

Smoking during pregnancy can increase the risk of perinatal mortality and premature births. It can also affect fetal growth and development. Exposure to chemicals from cigarettes while in the womb – and to secondhand smoke in the home – may also contribute to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and other respiratory illnesses, such as asthma. 

“For the health of their baby, parents-to-be should strongly consider stopping smoking, preferably before they conceive or, if not, as soon as they find out they are expecting,” says Dr. Atiq.

Risks of secondhand exposure

The smoke inhaled by nonsmokers is often referred to as secondhand smoking. Secondhand smoke exposure causes more than 7,300 deaths from lung cancer and nearly 34,000 deaths from heart disease annually, according to the American Lung Association

So, each time you smoke, you threaten not only your own health, but also the health of your family members and coworkers. Even if you’re not ready to quit for your own health, consider quitting for those you love.

How to quit 

Stopping smoking can be difficult, but effective treatment for tobacco dependence is available. Fortunately, there are several options to help you overcome nicotine addiction and quit smoking besides quitting “cold turkey.”

“If you want to quit, share that goal with your health care provider,” says Dr. Atiq. “We can help you develop a plan to navigate your journey to becoming tobacco-free.”

Set a quit date

The process of quitting generally begins by setting a “quit date” within the following 2-4 weeks. Patients are advised to quit abruptly on the quick date, but gradual reduction prior to the quick date is an acceptable alternative.

It’s helpful to identify your tobacco-use triggers or routines — socializing with friends, coping with stress, post-dinner ritual, etc. Consider developing ideas for other activities to adopt instead.

Nicotine replacement therapy

You can use over-the-counter nicotine patches, lozenges, gum or inhalers to help alleviate nicotine cravings as you work to quit your tobacco habit. Do not use NRT if you are pregnant or if you are still smoking.

Prescription medications

Speak with your physician about prescription-based medications that may help you stop smoking. One example is Varenicline (also known as Chantix), and another one is Bupropion, which is meant to reduce the amount of pleasure you get from smoking and help lessen symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. 

Mental and emotional support

When you stop smoking or using other forms of tobacco, you may feel angry, irritable, depressed or anxious. It’s important to recognize and address these mental and emotional symptoms of addiction withdrawal.

Finding a smoking cessation support group – either in-person or online – or speaking with a therapist may help.  Riverside offers an ongoing small group support program at our Wellness and Fitness location in Newport News.

One of the best resources for a patient is to access their state’s free telephone support line; call this number to directly connect to the Virginia “quitline”: 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

“Quitting smoking is not easy, so being patient with yourself – even if you slip up – is key,” says Dr. Atiq. “Even if it takes a few attempts to be successful, your health is worth the effort, and you’ll feel much better in the long-run.”

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