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Expert Opinion On Smoking Tobacco and its Damaging Effects

Smoking tobacco and the ways it damages your organs

By Dr. Mitesh Patel

Although smoking is a practice that in some nations around the world fits into the culture like a hand into a glove, there can be no misconception that medically speaking, smoking is habit that has an adverse effect on your health if performed for prolonged or even short periods of time. According to the British Heart Foundation, if you're a smoker, stopping smoking is the single most important step you can take to protect the health of your heart. In fact they go on to say that smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who have never smoked¹.

By quitting smoking, you'll be improving your own health by dramatically reducing your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and a variety of cancers. Plus, as smoking is a very expensive habit, stubbing it out will leave you with more money to spend on other things that you enjoy.

Expert opinion on smoking

  • Smoking increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, which includes coronary heart disease and stroke¹.
  • Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, leading to a build-up of fatty material which narrows the artery. This can cause angina, a heart attack or stroke
  • The carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood. This means your heart has to pump harder to supply the body with the oxygen it needs
  • The nicotine in cigarettes stimulates your body to produce adrenaline, which makes your heart beat faster and raises your blood pressure, making your heart work harder
  • Your blood is more likely to clot, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke
  • But of course it's not just the heart that suffers as a result of smoking. It's other crucial areas of your body too.

Dr Sneh Khemka, Vice President, Population Health Solutions & vHealth also shares his expert opinion on smoking in our Fit For Duty podcast episode below.

Smoking causes irreversible damage to your lungs and lung capacity

Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including over 50 known carcinogens (causes of cancer) and other poisons. Tar is one of the chemicals that coats the surface of the lungs and can also get into the blood vessels and be carried to other parts of the body.

Smoking seriously damages your lungs in several ways. It interferes with your lungs' natural cleaning and repair system. Smoking destroys the tiny hairs known as cilia that line the upper airways and protect against infection. Because smoking destroys cilia, the dirt and pollution stays in your lungs, along with chemicals from cigarette smoke. This resultant collection of bi-product in your lungs can put you at risk of developing lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chest infections and chronic cough.

Smoking also damages the air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe. The alveoli at the ends of your airways are like little stretchy balloons. When you smoke, the alveoli become less stretchy, so it's more difficult for your lungs to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. As alveoli are destroyed, the lungs transfer less and less oxygen to the bloodstream, causing you to feel short of breath².

Your smoking harms you and others around you

Unfortunately it is not just smokers who are putting their health at risk. Through what is termed second hand smoke, or passive smoking, smokers are also harming strangers or loved ones. By continuing to smoke, smokers and those around them are at greater risk of developing one or more of a myriad of diseases³.

Lung cancer: About 30,000 people in the UK alone die from lung cancer each year. More than 8 in 10 of the deaths caused by this serious lung disease are directly linked to smoking. People who die of COPD are usually quite unwell for several years before they die.

Heart disease: This is the biggest killer illness in the UK. About 120,000 people in the UK die each year from heart disease. About 1 in 6 of these is due to smoking.

Other cancers: Mouth, nose, throat, larynx, gullet (oesophagus), pancreas, bladder, cervix, blood (leukaemia), and kidney are all more common in smokers.

Rheumatoid arthritis: Smoking is known to be a risk factor for developing rheumatoid arthritis. One research study estimated that smoking is responsible for about 1 in 5 cases of rheumatoid arthritis.

Ageing: Smokers tend to develop more lines on their face at an earlier age than non-smokers. This often makes smokers look older than they really are.

Fertility: Can be dramatically reduced in smokers (both male and female).

Menopause: On average, women who smoke have a menopause nearly two years earlier than non-smokers.

Other conditions where smoking often causes worse symptoms include: asthma, colds, flu, chest infections, tuberculosis, chronic rhinitis, diabetic retinopathy, hyperthyroidism, multiple sclerosis, optic neuritis, and Crohn's disease.

Smoking increases the risk of developing various other conditions including: dementia, optic neuropathy, cataracts, macular degeneration, pulmonary fibrosis, psoriasis, gum disease, tooth loss, osteoporosis and Raynaud's phenomenon.

Busting the hubbly bubbly myth

For those keen to have a social smoke, but at the same time side-step the more negative effects of cigarette smoking, the 'hubbly bubbly', Shisha or 'hookahs' as they are otherwise known, have become incredibly popular over the years. The reason for that is many don't associate the harmful effects of using a water pipe smoker with the more publicised effects of cigarette smoking.

Unfortunately these people are just kidding themselves and damaging their health along the way.

Water pipe smokers are at risk of the same kinds of diseases that are caused by cigarette smoking, including cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, as well as adverse effects during pregnancy.

In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the smoke that emerges from a water pipe contains several toxins known to cause lung cancer, heart disease and other diseases. It delivers the addictive drug nicotine and, as is the case with other tobacco products, means that more frequent use is likely to result in addiction. In addition, the charcoal burned in the pipes often produces its own toxins, including high levels of carbon monoxide and cancer-causing chemicals.

Even chewing Paan can damage your health!

Many people believe that chewing tobacco is a non-addictive and harmless way of using tobacco without it affecting their health. Once again they would be wrong in that respect. The fact of the matter is that by chewing tobacco you will be ingesting nicotine which is addictive and you will leave yourself open to various types of mouth cancer⁴.

In various parts of South Asia and in many Middle-East countries, chewing Paan has become an acceptable cultural practice. The Paan leaf itself is not harmful, but all the other ingredients added to the leaf such as tobacco (sharda/zarda), betel nut (supari) and lime can seriously damage your health.

If you chew Paan with tobacco regularly you are up to five times more likely to develop mouth cancer than somebody who does not chew tobacco regularly. Once you have mouth cancer it is hard to treat and spreads very quickly. In addition, chewing Paan does not make you feel hungry, which is why many people who chew it skip breakfast and have irregular meal times or delayed meals. This can lead to digestive problems, including gastric ulcers.

Get expert support to quit smoking

It's not supposed to. That's because no matter how you look at it tobacco isn't good for you. Kick the habit and your senses of smell and taste get a boost as the body slowly recovers from being dulled by the hundreds of toxic chemicals found in cigarettes.

You'll also feel invigorated as within 2 to 12 weeks of stopping smoking, your circulation improves. This makes all physical activity, including walking and running, much easier. Furthermore, quitting boosts your immune system, making it easier to fight off colds and flu. Plus the increase in oxygen in the body makes ex-smokers less tired and less likely to have headaches.

Last but not least, by stopping smoking you'll be protecting the health of your non-smoking friends and family. And that counts for everything⁵. Of course at the end of it all there's a very easy way to stop smoking. And that's not to start in the first place. The wellness benefit featured on the AetnaUltraCare Comprehensive and Elite international health insurance plans provides for routine health checks for adults (i.e. neurological examinations, cancer screening and cholesterol checks).

Can you hide smoking from your health insurance company?

Intentionally hiding any aspect of your health from a health insurance provider is considered fraudulent and will invalidate your policy. This include smoking and other health-related lifestyle habits, such as vaping. If your provider finds that you have lied about your tobacco habit they may end your policy or request that you pay additional charges. 

Similarly, if you were a non-smoker when you originally signed up for your policy and have since started smoking, you must inform your insurance provider. Failing to do so may invalidate your policy and affect your renewal cost or ability to secure a future policy.

While you may be worried about the effect of smoking on your premium or range of cover, keep in mind that most health insurance providers offer some form of smoking cessation. Joining one of these programmes may lead to lower premiums or a wider range of cover once you can prove that you have kicked the habit — usually after one or two years, and sometimes after a medical examination.

Aetna International is dedicated to supporting people achieve and maintain healthy lifestyles, including quitting smoking. We champion personalised care, offering one-on-one sessions with a clinician for our members most at-risk of developing serious illnesses, including lung cancer. We also offer genetic testing via Aetna DNA. This can help identify aspects of your health that impact your smoking habit such as your stress response and help inform your lifestyle choices and behaviours. Your Aetna DNA counsellor can also work with you to help you understand your test results. We can also help you find ways to lower your stress levels, for example through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

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¹British Heart Foundation, Smoking
²American Lung Association, Lungs 101: How does smoking hurt your lungs
³, Smoking – The facts
Camden NHS, Paan chewing and your health NHS Choices, 10 health benefits of stopping smoking
NHS Choices, 10 health benefits of stopping smoking