Tobacco Use and Cessation

By Cathy Helbing, RRT – Registered Respiratory Therapist at Southwest Health

“Every breath you take” may be lyrics to a song, but those words are also so very important for a healthy life.

As a Registered Respiratory Therapist at Southwest Health for 20 years, I have watched in awe as a newborns take their first breath and grieved with families as their loved one has taken their last.

Tobacco use and the resulting health consequences affect so many people’s lives.  From the tobacco user, to those exposed to the second hand smoke, to the family and friends of these people, each has a story to tell about how tobacco use has taken its toll.  Following is information you can use as a tobacco user to make your life story as long as possible.

How does tobacco affect the brain?

The nicotine in any tobacco product readily absorbs into the blood when a person uses it. Upon entering the blood, nicotine immediately stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine stimulates the central nervous system and increases blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. As with drugs such as cocaine and heroin, nicotine increases levels of the chemical messenger dopamine, which affects parts of the brain that control reward and pleasure. Studies suggest that other chemicals in tobacco smoke, such as acetaldehyde, may enhance nicotine’s effects on the brain.

What are some health effects of tobacco use?

Although nicotine is addictive, most of the severe health effects of tobacco use comes from other chemicals. Tobacco smoking can lead to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.  It increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack. Smoking has also been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, and pneumonia.

Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of cancer, especially oral and pancreatic cancer. Smokeless tobacco is also strongly associated with leukoplakia—a precancerous lesion of the soft tissue in the mouth that consists of a white patch or plaque that cannot be scraped off.  In addition to these life threatening conditions, smokeless tobacco is also associated with recession of the gums, gum disease, and tooth decay.

Electronic Cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine with flavorings and other chemicals to the lungs in vapor instead of smoke. E-cigarette companies often advertise them as safer than traditional cigarettes because they don’t burn tobacco. But researchers actually know little about the health risks of using these devices.

There is good news when you quit tobacco

Immediate Rewards

There is no safe amount of cigarette smoke. When you smoke, the chemicals in tobacco reach your lungs quickly every time you inhale. Your blood carries the toxins to every organ in your body. But after you quit, your body begins to heal within 20 minutes of your last cigarette. The nicotine leaves your body within three days. As your body starts to repair itself, you may feel worse instead of better. Withdrawal can be difficult, but it’s a sign that your body is healing.

Watson the Watch Dog shares the benefits of quitting smoking.

Long-Term Rewards

Quitting can help you add years to your life. Smokers who quit before age 40 reduce their chance of dying early from smoking-related diseases by about 90 percent. Those who quit by age 45–54 reduce their chance of dying early by about two-thirds. You can take control of your health by quitting and staying smoke free. Over time, you’ll greatly lower your risk of death from lung cancer and other diseases such as heart disease, stroke, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and at least 13 other kinds of cancer.

When you quit, you’ll also protect your loved ones from dangerous secondhand smoke. You’ll set a good example and show your family that a life without cigarettes is possible.

Remind yourself of the rewards of quitting to help yourself stay on track:
  • 20 minutes: heart rate and blood pressure drop
  • 12 hours: carbon monoxide in the blood stream drops to normal
  • 48 hours: your senses of smell and taste begin to return to normal
  • 2 weeks–3 months: circulation and lung function improve; heart attack risk begins to drop
  • 1–9 months: cough less, breathe easier
  • 1 year: risk of coronary heart disease is cut in half
  • 2–5 years: risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, or bladder cut in half; stroke risk is reduced to that of a nonsmoker
  • 10 years: half as likely to die from lung cancer; risk of kidney or pancreatic cancer decreases
  • 15 years: risk of coronary heart disease is the same as a non-smoker’s risk
Other benefits to smile about:
  • Breath, clothes, and hair smell better
  • Fingers and fingernails may appear less yellow and teeth may appear whiter
  • Skin may be protected from further premature aging

How can people get treatment for nicotine addiction?

Both behavioral treatments and medications can help people quit smoking, but the combination of medication with counseling is more effective than either alone.

Behavioral Treatments

Behavioral treatments use a variety of methods to help people quit smoking, ranging from self-help materials to counseling. These treatments teach people to recognize high-risk situations and develop strategies to deal with them. For example, people who hang out with others who smoke are more likely to smoke and less likely to quit.

Nicotine Replacement Therapies

Nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) were the first medications the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use in smoking cessation therapy.

Current FDA-approved NRT products include chewing gum, transdermal patch, nasal sprays, inhalers, and lozenges. NRTs deliver a controlled dose of nicotine to relieve withdrawal symptoms while the person tries to quit.

Other Medications

Bupropion (Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®) are two FDA-approved non-nicotine medications that have helped people quit smoking. They target nicotine receptors in the brain, easing withdrawal symptoms and blocking the effects of nicotine if people start smoking again.


Other Resources
Wisconsin Tobacco Quit Line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW   (Centers for Disease Control)
American Lung Association, 1-800-LUNGUSA


Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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