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The Scoop On Smoking from ACSH: what every teen should know about tobacco


FAQ

Cigarette smoking is bad for you.

You knew that. Almost everybody knows that. After all, there have been warning labels on cigarette packages since before you were born.

But the problem with warning labels is that they're short -- far too short to give you the complete picture of what cigarettes can do to your body. To give you all of the facts you need about cigarette smoking, it would be necessary to have a warning label the size of a book!

The people at the American Council on Science and Health created this website because we want you to have the facts -- all of the facts -- about smoking. We designed this website especially for people your age because knowing the truth about smoking is particularly important for you.

You see, most smokers start to smoke while they are in middle school or high school. Almost 90% of all smokers start to smoke before reaching the age of 18. People make the decision to smoke -- one of the most important decisions of their lives -- when they are your age or just a little bit older. And unfortunately, many of them don't have all the facts about cigarettes when they decide to start smoking. In fact, some of them believe myths about smoking that are just plain wrong.

So let's start by talking about ten common myths about smoking -- none of which is mentioned on the warning labels.


Myths Debunked

Myth #1: Most people smoke.
Myth #2: Smoking is cool.
Myth #3: Sure, smoking is unhealthy. But a lot of other things are just as bad for you. After all, practically everything seems to have a warning label.
Myth #4: Smoking only causes a few health problems -- the ones listed on the warning labels.
Myth #5: Smoking won't affect my health until I'm much older.
Myth #6: I only smoke a little. That won't hurt me.
Myth #7: I'm only going to smoke for a few years. Then I'll quit. So my smoking doesn't really matter.
Myth #8: Smoking will help me lose weight.
Myth #9: I don't smoke cigarettes. I just smoke cigars or bidis or use smokeless tobacco. So I don't have a problem.
Myth #10: OK. I admit that smoking is bad for me. But that's my problem, not anybody else's. The only person I'm hurting is me, so it's nobody else's business.
So I guess it would be better if I never started smoking, right?



Myths Debunked




Myth #1: Most people smoke.

Actually, most people don't smoke. This is true both for adults and for teenagers.

  • Among adults in the U.S., 77% are nonsmokers.
  • Among high school students, 71% are nonsmokers.

If all of these people don't smoke, you don't have to either.




Myth #2: Smoking is cool.

Actually, most teenagers don't think that smoking is cool. In fact,

  • 67% of teenagers say that seeing someone smoke turns them off.
  • 65% say that they strongly dislike being around smokers.
  • 86% would rather date people who don't smoke.

Many teenagers think that kissing a smoker is like licking a dirty ashtray; perhaps this is why the percentage who don't want to date smokers is so high!

Even teenagers who smoke don't think that smoking is cool. More than half of all teenage smokers want to quit, and about 70% of teenage smokers wish that they had never started smoking in the first place.

If you've gotten the impression that smoking is cool, it may be because smoking is portrayed that way in cigarette advertising. Ads for cigarettes -- like ads for other products -- are designed to associate the product with positive images. Cigarette ads usually show smiling, healthy-looking young adults, in an outdoor setting, having fun with friends. That's a "cool" image. But letting advertising manipulate you into making poor choices is not cool. What's really cool is thinking for yourself and making smart personal decisions.




Myth #3: Sure, smoking is unhealthy. But a lot of other things are just as bad for you. After all, practically everything seems to have a warning label.

Smoking is far, far worse than most other health hazards. Let's look at some of the numbers:

  • Smoking is the number one cause of avoidable deaths in the United States.
  • Every year, more than 400,000 Americans die as a result of smoking.
  • One out of every five deaths in the U.S. is due to smoking.
  • Worldwide, four million people a year die from smoking -- that's 11,000 people every day.
  • Smoking kills one-half of all people who smoke.

To put the impact of smoking into perspective, it may help to consider six other major causes of death in the United States: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, AIDS, motor vehicle crashes, homicide, and suicide. All of these are important problems. All of them kill substantial numbers of people every year. Yet all six of these causes combined account for only half as many deaths each year as smoking does.

Let's try another comparison. For the rest of your life, you will undoubtedly remember the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that occurred on September 11, 2001. About 3,000 people died in those attacks. But that number is small compared to the number of people killed by smoking every year. In fact, cigarette smoking kills that many Americans every three days.

Of course, cigarettes aren't the only products that carry warning labels. If you look around your home, you can probably find warning labels on a lot of other products. For example,

  • Your hair dryer has a warning label that tells you that you shouldn't use it while taking a bath because you could be electrocuted.
  • The plastic bags that you bring home from the grocery store have warning labels saying that they can suffocate small children.
  • The charcoal that your parents use in their barbecue grill has a warning label that says that it shouldn't be used indoors because it could cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

How do the hazards of these products compare to the hazards of cigarettes?

  • Each year, an average of 4 Americans are electrocuted by hair dryers.
  • Each year, approximately 25 U.S. children are suffocated by plastic bags.
  • Each year, roughly 20 Americans are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning due to the indoor burning of charcoal.
  • Each year, more than 400,000 Americans are killed by cigarette smoking.

In other words, the other three products aren't even in the same league with cigarettes.

There's another important difference between the other three products and cigarettes. Hair dryers, plastic bags, and charcoal are all safe if you use them correctly. They're only dangerous if you misuse them. Cigarettes are deadly when they're used in the way that they're supposed to be used. There is no such thing as a "safe" cigarette.

Cigarettes are harmful to everyone who uses them. This is different from the situation for some other products that carry warning labels. Let's consider a warning label that most people your age have seen many times -- the warning on video games that tells you that light flashes in the games can cause some people to have seizures. How does this hazard compare to the hazard of smoking cigarettes?

  • 1 out of every 4,000 people is at risk of having a seizure from light flashes associated with video games.
  • 4,000 out of every 4,000 people are at risk of damaging their health by smoking cigarettes.

Please don't misunderstand us here. We're not saying that warning labels on products such as hair dryers and video games aren't justified. Those labels give people useful information, and they may help to save lives. It's a good idea to have them. But don't let the proliferation of warning labels fool you into thinking that cigarettes are "just like everything else." They're not. Cigarettes are worse. Much worse.




Myth #4: Smoking only causes a few health problems -- the ones listed on the warning labels.

The only health problems specifically mentioned on the warning labels are lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and special problems that can happen when a pregnant woman smokes (complications of pregnancy, injury to the unborn child, low birth weight, and premature birth). But smoking also increases your risk of a wide variety of other diseases. And for people who already have health problems, smoking can make many of those problems worse.

Smoking causes so many problems in so many parts of your body that we've devoted an entire section of this website explaining them.

Smoking is able to cause such widespread damage because harmful substances from cigarette smoke reach every part of your body. Within seconds after a person inhales cigarette smoke, about 4,000 toxic substances are absorbed into the bloodstream. They then travel to every cell in the body. Thus, smoking doesn't just affect your lungs and heart -- it affects everything. But warning labels that mention only heart and lung diseases and pregnancy problems don't give people this message.




Myth #5: Smoking won't affect my health until I'm much older.

Actually, if you smoke now, it can hurt you now. Some of the harmful effects of smoking occur right away.

You also need to know that smoking-related diseases can kill people at surprisingly young ages. Some of the victims are in their 30s or 40s. For example

  • Nancy Gore Hunger, sister of former Vice President Al Gore, died of lung cancer due to smoking at 46.
  • Actress Carrie Hamilton, daughter of TV star Carol Burnett, died of lung cancer due to smoking at 38.

You were planning to live a lot longer than these people did, weren't you?




Myth #6: I only smoke a little. That won't hurt me.

Even smoking a little can hurt you. Research has shown that even "occasional" (less-than-daily) smoking, smoking only a few cigarettes per day, or smoking "without inhaling" can increase your risk of heart disease and shorten your life.

Actually, the idea that smoking "just a little" can be harmful to your health should not come as a surprise. The amount of tobacco smoke exposure that results from occasional smoking is similar to the amount that results from frequent exposure to tobacco smoke in the environment. Scientists know that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke can be harmful to your health. So it makes sense that smoking just a little would also be unhealthy.

In terms of health effects, cigarette smoking is quite different from eating candy or drinking coffee. People can consume candy and coffee in moderate amounts without hurting themselves. It's only when they go overboard and use these things to excess that they get into trouble. But there is no such thing as smoking "in moderation." Any amount of smoking is bad for you.

In terms of health effects, smoking is also very different from going out in the sun. You probably know that a little exposure to sunlight is good for you; it helps your body make vitamin D. But too much exposure to the sun can give you a sunburn and increase your chances of getting skin cancer. Smoking is not like this. There is no beneficial level of smoking. While it is true that smoking may actually protect against a few diseases such as Parkinson's (a disease of the nervous system), probably as a result of the actions of nicotine (a drug found in tobacco), these potential benefits are more than outweighed by the extensive harm caused by tobacco smoke's other effects in the body.

Another problem with smoking "just a little" is that most people can't do it for long. Cigarettes are physically addictive. If you become a smoker, your body will adapt to cigarettes so that you will come to need them -- and need them several times a day -- in order to feel normal. Because cigarettes are addictive, most people can't continue to be occasional smokers for long. Soon, they find themselves smoking every day, several times a day. And the more they smoke, the more they are damaging their health.




Myth #7: I'm only going to smoke for a few years. Then I'll quit. So my smoking doesn't really matter.

People who assume that all of the health hazards of cigarettes will disappear in a puff of smoke when they quit are wrong -- dead wrong. Many of the harmful effects of smoking are irreversible, meaning that they do not go away completely after a person quits smoking.

Smoking for as short a time as five years can cause permanent damage -- to the lungs, heart, eyes, throat, urinary tract, digestive organs, bones and joints, and skin. Although it is true, as one of the cigarette warning labels says, that quitting smoking reduces health risks, many of those risks are only partially reversible. Ex-smokers continue to have increased risks of many smoking-related diseases and health problems, including lung cancer, bladder cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, the bone disease osteoporosis, serious diseases of the eyes (cataracts and macular degeneration), and muscle and bone pain. Only for heart disease and stroke is there good evidence that the risk faced by an ex-smoker ever returns to that of a lifelong nonsmoker -- and even that takes from five to 15 years after a person quits smoking.

Scientists estimate that between 10 and 37% of ex-smokers will die from diseases caused by their smoking. Although this is certainly better than the situation among people who continue to smoke (about half of whom will die of smoking), it is a clear indicator that some of the harm caused by smoking cannot be undone.

In addition, for many people, smoking itself is irreversible. Even with multiple attempts and the help of modern quit-smoking techniques, many smokers never succeed in stopping smoking permanently. The addictive power of nicotine is so strong that millions of people continue to smoke even though they know that cigarettes may kill them.




Myth #8: Smoking will help me lose weight.

Actually, it won't. Starting to smoke is not associated with a decrease in body weight.

Unfortunately, though, quitting smoking is followed by a gain in weight for many people.

So here's what's likely to happen if you start to smoke in the hope of losing weight:

  • You start smoking.
  • After a while, you realize that your weight has not changed. You're disappointed.
  • Then you realize that instead of a better-looking body, what you have is a smelly, dirty, unattractive, expensive, dangerous addiction. You're horrified.
  • You quit smoking. It's tough, but you manage to do it.
  • You gain weight. Now you're heavier than you were when you started.

Does this make sense?




Myth #9: I don't smoke cigarettes. I just smoke cigars or bidis or use smokeless tobacco. So I don't have a problem.

Actually, you do have a problem. All of these other forms of tobacco are addictive, and all are seriously harmful to your health. You can find the facts about cigars, bidis, and smokeless tobacco on this website.




Myth #10: OK. I admit that smoking is bad for me. But that's my problem, not anybody else's. The only person I'm hurting is me, so it's nobody else's business.

Well, first of all, your smoking is a problem for all of the people who care about you. They don't like to see you harming yourself, and they would be thrilled if you would quit.

But beyond that, there's another problem. When you smoke, your cigarettes give off smoke into the environment. That smoke is harmful to other people's health. It's especially harmful to children -- and that's important, because in another ten years or so, you may be starting a family. The last people in the world that you would want to hurt are your own children, but if you're a smoker, you may find yourself doing that. Women who smoke can even harm their children before they're born because smoking during pregnancy is bad for the baby.




So I guess it would be better if I never started smoking, right?

Exactly.

But you may still want more information before you make such an important decision. In particular, you may want to know how smoking can affect your health right now. To find out, check out the effects section of this website.


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