The Horrifying Effects Of Smoking: What's It Doing To Your Body?
Are you aware that your life expectancy decreases every time you spark up a cigarette? A regular smoker with a moderate habit could reduce their lifespan by 10-11 years, bringing the national average down from 81 to 70 years old.
The effects of smoking on the mind and body are well documented, yet it still remains a leading cause of death in the UK, and a significant risk factor for developing various cancers and heart disease.
In this guide, we'll explore the effects of smoking and look at what it does to the body - and mind.
But to properly understand the long-term consequences of smoking, it's important to look back in time at how it became such a controversial topic. We'll also explore why some people still smoke and discuss ways you can kick the habit for good.
You might think you know all there is to know about the risks of lighting up, but there are many other consequences than the apparent threat of cancers.
So, get ready to learn the truth about those little white sticks because we're about to dive into the dark secrets tobacco companies are keeping from you.
A very brief (and very unsettling) history of cigarette smoking
It seems unbelievable that just a few decades ago, people didn't know that lighting up a cigarette could dramatically reduce their life expectancy. By the 1940s, smoking was the 'done thing', and nobody batted an eyelid when people puffed on a pipe in pubs, workplaces and offices.
The 1950s and 1960s were also full of conflicting messages, with doctors warning people that smoking could cause cancer and few listening to them. Pregnant women would happily fill their lungs with smoke, unaware of its harm to their babies.
By no means was this due to a lack of care, but rather conflicting messages from professionals and tobacco companies. The sheer amount of money these companies spent on marketing, putting their cigarettes in a positive light would easily overshadow the increasing evidence that smoking causes heart disease and cancer.
Luckily, the government took control in the 1970s and introduced stricter regulations for tobacco companies, including adding warnings on tobacco products.
Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act
In 2002, the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act came into effect, which banned tobacco companies from advertising and promoting their products to stop cigarettes from being glorified - especially for more impressionable children.
Well, it's no secret that we've seen a significant decrease in smokers in the past 20 years, and studies show that stricter regulations for tobacco companies and stop-smoking initiatives ensure people understand the very real effects of smoking.
In the 1980s, the number of smokers aged 11-15 reached its height at 11%, but that figure dropped steadily to just 2% by 2018 (Ash). The prevalence of smoking among adults also decreases yearly, falling from 45% in the 1970s to just 14.1% in 2019.
The information's there. The stop-smoking initiatives work... so why are people still smoking?
It's a common question many people ask for a good reason! As a society, we're more informed and able to access information as and when we need it, with the internet educating people on the effects of smoking.
People didn't have these resources at their disposal until the late 1990s, and advertising companies could get away with bold statements with no evidence behind them, but we know better now.
Nobody can deny how dangerous cigarettes and other tobacco products are, but people still light up. The NHS estimates that around 78,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses, and there were over 484,000 smoking-related hospitals in 2016/2017.
So, why are people still smoking?
Tobacco is the same as any other addictive drug
People who have never smoked probably won't understand how easy it is to become addicted to tobacco products. Many professionals would agree that it's more difficult to kick a smoking habit than an illegal drug addiction.
An article published by Drug Free states that many smokers can try to quit up to 30 times before they actually succeed, as cigarettes and rolling tobacco are readily available.
Anyone can walk into their local shop and buy a pack of cigarettes, but illegal drugs aren't as easy to get hold of, so recovering drug addicts have fewer obstacles to staying clean.
Even the most motivated smoker might make it through the initial withdrawals, but the temptation and ease of access prove too much.
The ongoing effects of aggressive advertising
The British government was one of the first in the world to take action against tobacco companies to prevent people from risking their health. In 1965, the UK banned cigarette television advertisements, but rolling tobacco and other media campaigns were still legal.
Research shows that advertising impacts a person's perception of a particular product (Owlcation), and tobacco companies were experts at showcasing their goods in the best light.
As you can see from this post by Metro, tobacco companies knew exactly how to portray their products as harmless.
The types of strategic advertising would inevitably affect the public, and even though tobacco advertising is now banned, the after effects of the years before might continue to have an effect.
Individuals with mental health issues are more at risk of developing addictions. The need to find relief from the symptoms of depression, anxiety and social isolation can lead to tobacco dependence.
As nicotine is an addictive substance that can easily give people an immediate boost, they often mistake it as a way of self-medicating.
Living in deprived areas
Numerous studies show that people living in deprived areas are far more likely to smoke than those who don't. According to the Office For National Statistics, Bradford, Hull, and Blackpool have the highest amount of smokers, while affluent areas such as Surrey have low smoking rates.
There's also a distinct gap in employment, with people in unskilled or manual roles smoking more than individuals in professional and managerial jobs.
While it's not known exactly why people in deprived areas are more likely to smoke, the evidence is there, and it continues to be an ongoing issue.
Peer pressure/Social identity
As the smoking rates in young people continue to decrease, there's less peer pressure to take up smoking because it's 'cool'. However, some still believe that smoking makes them stand out from the crowd and enjoy the stigma it creates.
This rebel without a cause mentality is nowhere near as prevalent as it once was, but some smokers continue with the habit because it causes controversy.
The many effects of smoking
Now you know how smoking becomes an issue and why people continue to do it, it's time to reveal the true effects smoking has on your body, mind and wellbeing. Whether you're a smoker or worried about someone who hasn't yet kicked the habit, the following effects are not for the faint of heart.
However, they are very real and enough to make anyone think before lighting up again.
Most people know the physical implications of smoking, and medical professionals are quick to ensure that smokers understand their increased risk of cancer and heart disease.
Let's look at what it does to your body in more detail.
It's not just lung cancer
Both rolling tobacco and cigarettes can cause cancer, with most people aware of the connection between smoking and lung cancer. As one of the most common cancers in the UK, there is plenty of research on the risk factors for lung cancer.
Statistics suggest that 72% of all lung cancer cases are due to smoking, but the good news is that 79% are preventable (Cancer Research). Unfortunately, the prognosis is less than optimistic, with just one in ten people surviving for ten years after the initial diagnosis.
Smokers also have a greater risk of developing other cancers, including:
Cancer deaths remain high in the UK, and while new treatments mean specialists can treat the disease more effectively, avoiding smoking could save your life.
Heart disease & Cardiovascular related conditions
Heart disease is an umbrella term for various conditions impacting the cardiovascular system. When a person smokes, they introduce thousands of chemicals and toxins into their body, which inevitably affects multiple organs - including the heart. The arteries are particularly susceptible to cigarette smoke, and the problems it causes include:
Atherosclerosis: Cigarettes have many chemicals, and they can cause plaque that narrows the arteries and restricts blood flow.
PAD: Peripheral Arterial Disease is when the arteries fail to pump blood to the limbs, sometimes leading to amputations.
Coronary Heart Disease: This form of heart disease is the one people are most aware of, and plaque, clots or both can result in a heart attack.
Abdominal Aortic Problems: Smoking can harm the abdominal artery, which carries blood around the body. If it becomes damaged, the result is a potentially fatal aneurysm.
Strokes can also occur due to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. When the brain doesn't get the proper supply of blood flow, it can cause a stroke, leading to long-term mobility and communication issues.
While former smokers have a slightly bigger risk of strokes than non-smokers, the danger is much greater for current smokers.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
COPD is an umbrella term for lung diseases that result in long-term breathing problems. Smoking is the primary cause of developing these conditions, making it hard for sufferers to function in everyday life.
The two common forms of COPD are:
Chronic Bronchitis: A more severe form of acute bronchitis, the chronic disease causes long-term breathing difficulties, and while the symptoms might subside, they never go away.
Emphysema: When the air sacs in the lungs become damaged, they create large spaces of air, which results in a reduced ability to partake in physical activity, wheezing and coughing. In severe cases of emphysema, the life expectancy from the initial diagnosis is five years.
According to GOV.UK, there are 25,000 COPD-related deaths annually, and 86% of these are due to smoking.
These shocking statistics show that lung cancer isn't the only potentially fatal respiratory system disease, and emphysema is a severe smoking-related illness you can prevent by quitting.
A lack of physical exercise
Physical activity is so important because it facilitates weight loss and ensures people are mentally healthy too. While smoking doesn't stop you from exercising, the lack of oxygen will make it much harder to participate in any demanding activities for a prolonged time.
For this reason, smokers:
Are less likely to build muscle
Receive more exercise-related injuries
Have unhealthy sleep patterns
Need more recovery time
Let's make one thing clear; smoking is not an excellent weight-loss tool. It's common to see models chain-smoking, and of course, this means young people might take up the habit because they think it will make them skinny.
Smokers get less physical activity than non-smokers, and the habit can cause fat deposits to settle on the abdomen instead of evenly throughout the body.
The best way to stay slim is by consuming a healthy diet and getting at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly.
Both direct and passive smoking can impact a person's fertility. Women smokers will find it harder to conceive and typically begin menopause quicker than non-smokers. But men can also have issues, including a lower sperm count or damaged sperm.
If a couple smokes, their chances of conceiving will be twice as low as a non-smoking couple (Reproductive Facts).
Expectant mothers should also be aware that even if they do conceive, smoking during or after pregnancy increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by 30%.
The mental implications
Those were the physical effects of smoking, but let's not forget the mental implications. From reduced confidence to gum disease and social isolation, the emotional effects of smoking can be just as damaging as the physical ones.
Increased anxiety and stress
Many smokers believe that sparking up relieves stress and anxiety, but withdrawal symptoms can often lead to higher stress levels. While nicotine isn't a relatively dangerous substance, it is highly addictive, and people will frequently replenish their levels with tobacco products.
Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia can find themselves in a vicious circle of self-medicating, and smoking can worsen the common symptoms of these conditions.
There are many reasons for people with mental health issues to quit smoking, and doing so can decrease the need for high doses of antipsychotic medications.
Reduced confidence due to the physical effects of smoking
As the saying goes, looks don't matter - but many people would disagree. A significant part of what makes us who we are is our appearance, including how we dress, do our hair, and feel when we look in the mirror.
Smoking causes many health effects and can also impact your appearance, which in turn damages your self-esteem.
Tobacco smoke can cause:
Premature wrinkles: Smokers often have the same amount at forty as a 60-year-old non-smoker.
Bad breath: Tobacco doesn't leave a pleasant taste in the mouth and often causes bad breath that smokers might not notice. The people around them will, though, and might avoid conversations.
Poor teeth: In minor cases, the teeth will become yellow, but gum disease is also a common risk factor for smokers.
Skin problems: The skin can become pale, with an almost yellow or brown tone, and smokers are more susceptible to acne.
Dealing with all of these things and trying to be your best self isn't easy, and a lack of self-esteem can damage relationships and cause you to withdraw from social situations.
Smoking affects your social life
While smoking was more social a few years ago, the bans on smoking inside mean people now can become more isolated. With just over 14% of adults smoking, many of these people will belong to a social group where few members smoke.
As people that don't smoke are very aware of the damages of breathing in carbon monoxide and other chemicals, it's understandable that they might not want to be around smokers.
Your romantic life can also take a hit because smokers have a harder time finding someone to accept their habit. An article by The Mirror shows that smoking is a significant deal-breaker on dating sites, and regular smokers are three times less likely to find love!
Your habit can harm your loved ones
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about smoking is that it doesn't just pose significant health risks to you because secondhand smoke (passive smoking) can be just as deadly.
When people breathe in tobacco smoke, they have a higher risk of cancer and heart disease than people that aren't around cigarette smokers.
As cigarette smoking releases numerous toxins and cancer-causing chemicals, pets and children can also be more susceptible to asthma and common infections.
While smoking outside can reduce the risks, cigarette smoke can linger for up to three hours, and the best way to protect your family (and furry friends) is to stop smoking.
Quitting smoking can dramatically increase your life expectancy, so what are you waiting for?
It doesn't matter if you're 20, 40 or 70; going smoke-free can make a massive difference to your physical health and mental wellbeing. Even more importantly, it can add years to your life.
People who quit smoking by the time they're 40 can restore their lifespan to the national average, but older adults can also improve their outlook.
The range of stop-smoking options available today also allows you to remove tar and carbon monoxide from your body but still get that much-needed nicotine hit.
Electronic cigarettes are fast becoming the most popular - and effective - way to stop smoking. The NHS states that vaping is twice as effective as traditional nicotine replacement products.
With so many flavours available, including menthol, fruit and classic tobacco blend e-liquids, there's never been a better time to start your vaping journey to prolong your health and protect your family.