Most discussions of smoking revolve around its negative health implications. Smoking has been named the leading preventable cause of disease and death worldwide by major health organizations, such as the CDC, WHO, and the American Lung Association. The key reasons for this attribution are this: tobacco smoking harms nearly every organ in the body, and smokers are more likely to develop three of the leading causes of death, namely heart disease, cancer, and stroke (CDC, “Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking”). In the United States, approximately one in every five deaths each year can be attributed to cigarette smoking, and on average; smokers die ten years earlier than non-smokers (CDC, “Tobacco Fast Facts”).
In addition to all of these health concerns, the financial cost related to smoking is equally concerning. In 2012 in the United States alone, the tobacco industry spent $9.17 billion dollars simply on advertising and promotional expenses. In the United States throughout 2014, nearly 264 billion cigarettes were sold at an average cost of $6.28 per 20-count pack. Smoking related illness costs the United States more than $300 billion per year, including medical costs and loss of productivity. [For more information, see CDC, “Economic Facts About U.S. Tobacco Production and Use.”]
Some studies suggest a connection between smoking and poverty. The CDC reports that people living at or below the poverty line are statistically more likely to be smokers (“Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults in the United States”). This problem extends outside of the United States, as tobacco companies have begun targeting poorer nations as smoking in the U.S. decreases. The World Health Organization (WHO), sponsored by the U.N., reports that “in the poorest households in some low- and middle-income countries, more than 10% of total household expenditure is on tobacco.” This unnecessary cost not only destroys health but takes away money from essential needs, including food and education. WHO urges for a recognition of the “role of tobacco use in exacerbating poverty and hindering economic development.”
Although smoking is typically considered in terms of cigarettes, smoking could take other forms including cigars, pipes, hookahs, bongs, or vaporizers and expands beyond tobacco to include marijuana, opium and other illegal drugs.
Cigarette smokers often become addicted to nicotine, a naturally occurring drug in tobacco. Estimates suggest that there are more Americans addicted to nicotine than any other drug (CDC, “Quitting Smoking”). Some smokers say that smoking helps them to relax, an effect of this drug. Nicotine addiction is real, and people trying to quit smoking will usually experience withdrawal-like symptoms. Some say that smoking-related addictions can be more difficult to break than drugs such as heroin. Reasons go beyond the addictive power of nicotine, and include the smell, the use of mouth and the taste, the habit of using one’s fingers (those breaking don’t know what to do with their hands), the “break from work” or the “after meal” practice that must be broken, and sometimes breaking with fellow smokers. However, in spite of these very real difficulties, smokers can quit and do quit. The CDC reports that, beginning in 2002, there were more former smokers than current smokers in the U.S. (CDC, “Quitting Smoking”). Quitting permanently can over time reduce the risk of the health effects of a previous smoking habit.
With all of these negative effects, widely known and oft-told, why do people still choose to smoke? Some smokers say they smoke to relieve stress (perhaps seeking the effects of nicotine). Teens may start smoking to look “cool,” or be like their friends, or as a part of rebellious experimentation. Also, those with parents or close friends who smoke are more likely to smoke (American Cancer Society, “Why do people start smoking?”). Another factor is the widespread exposure to the tobacco industry, especially through advertisements and films.
Adolescence and young adulthood are key times for prevention. The American Lung Association reports that 70% of smoking adults began smoking regularly at age 18 or younger and 86% at age 21 or younger. Considering the wide range of harmful results of smoking, we should encourage our young people toward healthy behaviors. The presenting challenge is discerning the best way to do this.
Anti-smoking campaigns have been used heavily since the 1990s, but they have left many skeptical at best about their success. Under major pressure from independent and government organizations, even several major tobacco companies have launched anti-smoking advertisements aimed at teens. These campaigns by the tobacco industry have actually been shown to increase young people’s inclinations to smoke (see Tobacco Free Kids, “Big Surprise: Tobacco Company Prevention Campaigns Don’t Work; Maybe It’s Because They’re not Supposed To”).
The National Academy of Sciences reports findings from two studies of a variety of anti-smoking ads, which conclude that ads which include “messages about endangering others, negative life circumstances, refusing cigarettes, and messages using strong negative emotion” reduced teens inclinations to smoke. The most effective ads employed personal testimonials. This same study reports that ineffective ads included “normative influence, health consequences, the cosmetic effects of smoking, negative messages about the tobacco industry, and humorous messages.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What brings you to this topic, and what do you hope to learn?
Are you a smoker? Is someone close to you (a friend or family member) a smoker? When did you/they start? Why do you/they smoke? How does it affect your/their life?
Why do you think people begin smoking, particularly in light of how much we know today about the negative effects of smoking?
How do you think advertising and media play into this issue?
Do you know anyone who has successfully quit smoking? How did they go about it? Was it easy or difficult for them and why?
What ideas do you have for smoking prevention with teens? Why do you think some of these programs do not work? What do you believe are the keys to a successful prevention program?
Smoking has serious health and economic consequences. We should agree with leading health organizations that it is an issue of public health.
We should remember that although smoking is addictive, it is an addiction that can be broken. We should encourage this step of good health first in ourselves and then with those we care about.
Adolescence and young adulthood are key times for smoking prevention. We must explore the nature of programs that are successful and seek to adopt them in our own sphere of influence.