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Longtime Smokers Can See Instant Health Benefits When They Quit

New therapies can help you break the smoking habit and immediately reduce health risks.

By Bryant Furlow

The costs of smoking reveal themselves most brutally in midlife or later: increased risks of 15 types of cancer, heart disease, lung disease, stroke, diabetes, even osteoporosis.

When hypertension patients give up cigarettes, their systolic blood pressure drops within three weeks, according to Dr. Brawley. And there are other benefits over time for any smoker who quits: After 10 years — and perhaps as few as five — cancer risks also will have declined significantly, although they’ll never return to pre-smoking levels, Dr. Brawley says.

“The benefits are greater the earlier in life one quits, but there are significant benefits even for people in their 80s,” he says.

Are you Teaching Your Grandkids to Smoke?

“The influence of grandparents is overwhelming,” says Marie Leiner, a researcher at Texas Tech University Health Sciences in El Paso, Tex. Leiner has found that children whose grandparents are hooked on nicotine are 70 percent more likely to become smokers themselves than kids whose grandparents are nonsmokers.

Research indicates that quitting for the sake of loved ones may help smokers rid themselves of the habit more successfully. Parents who are motivated by a desire to protect their children, for example, are more likely to give up cigarettes for good, according to a recent analysis of data from 18 studies. 

Dr. Brawley emphasizes the importance of encouraging young people not to start smoking. “Ninety-six percent of smokers over age 40 began before they were 17 years old,” he says, adding, “We know that’s when the tobacco industry wants to handcuff them.”

Nicotine is more addictive than cocaine, Dr. Brawley says, which means giving up cigarettes is a challenge at any age. But research indicates that it’s no harder in midlife than in youth. What makes it most difficult is not how many years you've smoked but the extent of your daily habit.

“People who smoke two packs a day are more addicted than one-pack-a-day smokers,” Dr. Brawley explains. For this reason, light smokers — those who go through less than a pack a day — tend to be much more successful in their attempts to quit.

Still, even heavy smokers can kick the habit — despite tobacco companies' desire to hang on to their customers, which is reflected in efforts ranging from direct mail to their infamously misleading  “low tar” and “mild” marketing campaigns.

New (and Sometimes Dubious) Quitting Strategies

What appears to be the most effective strategy involves a combination of drug therapy and counseling, according to Dr. Brawley. “Counseling can be done one on one, with a doctor, social worker, psychology,” he says. “There’s even some data showing calls to a telephonic quit-tobacco help-line can work.”

There are no shortage of smartpone apps for quitting smoking available on the Internet. There's even a free one developed by MMG for the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute.  


Diazepam (Valium) is frequently prescribed to help patients manage the anxiety associated with nicotine withdrawal. So far there's no evidence, however, that it improves success rates among smokers trying to stop. And like many prescription medications, it is potentially habit-forming.

Unproven and “snake oil” products that promise to help smokers quit are ubiquitous, Dr. Brawley cautions. Moreover, the notion that chewing tobacco is a less-dangerous alternative to cigarettes is completely wrongheaded, he says.

“But I keep an open mind,” Dr. Brawley adds. “There are nontraditional things that appear beneficial. Some hypnosis approaches seem to work.”


Bryant Furlow is an investigative reporter and medical writer who lives in Albuquerque. Read More
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