Understanding Tobacco Use

The Toll of Tobacco Use

Tobacco use, primarily cigarette smoking, remains the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the United States. It is a major contributor to deaths from cancer, heart disease, and lung diseases among others. Smoking and secondhand smoke exposure are leading triggers for asthma episodes and COPD flare-ups, and they cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza, headaches, eye irritation and many other diseases and conditions.

A Disproportionate Burden

The burden of tobacco is not felt equally by all populations. Tobacco products are used disproportionately by certain vulnerable populations. For example, people with low socioeconomic status or education levels, the LGBTQ community, individuals living with mental illness, and racial minorities smoke at greater rates than the general population. Certain products are also disproportionately used by certain populations. Cigar use remains high in African American and Hispanic communities and mentholated products are disproportionately used by communities of color and the LGBTQ community.

Likewise, certain populations experience disproportionate rates of tobacco-related death and disease. For example, African Americans experience tobacco-related death and disease at higher rates. Similarly, the mental and behavioral health community smokes at up to three times more and dies on average 25 years younger than the general population.

The Economic Toll

Tobacco doesn’t just hurt smokers and their families, but it adds significantly to the cost of our nation’s health care system.  When taking into account the health care spending for emergency room visits, immediate care centers, frequent doctor’s visits and prescriptions, the cost of tobacco use skyrockets.

According to Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the annual health care costs in Illinois linked to smoking are approximately $5.49 billion, including $1.9 billion in costs to Illinois Medicaid.  In addition, smoking annually accounts for $5.27 billion in lost productivity costs to Illinois businesses.

Why is nicotine highly addictive?

Smoking is an addiction. Tobacco products contain nicotine, a highly addictive chemical found naturally in tobacco plants.

Nicotine addiction has two components: physical and psychological. Research suggests that children and teens may be especially sensitive to nicotine, making it easier for them to become addicted. The younger individuals are when they begin smoking, the more likely they are to become addicted. In fact, about three out of four high school smokers will become adult smokers.

Physical impact of nicotine
When a person smokes a cigarette or cigar, uses smokeless tobacco or an electronic nicotine delivery system (e-cigarettes), nicotine travels to the brain within seconds, where it quickly binds to nicotine receptors and eventually leads to a release of dopamine in the pleasure pathways of the brain. Once this happens, the user typically begins experiencing feelings of pleasure and calmness. However, these effects wear off soon, triggering an urge to use tobacco again so that the user can get those same feelings. With continued tobacco use, the brain may adapt by increasing its number of nicotine receptors, and the user will gradually need even more nicotine to feel satisfied.

Psychological impact of nicotine
The psychological addiction develops based on the connection between tobacco use and activities a person does while using tobacco. For example, if the user enjoyed coffee and a cigarette every morning for years, these two are likely linked in the brain, so even when the person no longer smokes, future cups of coffee may trigger an urge. After months or years of using tobacco, it may become part of daily routine where the user is not even making a conscious decision to use tobacco.

Are you thinking about quitting? Help is available.

Is it possible to quit using tobacco?

Yes, you can quit! Every year, more than 1 million people quit smoking for good. When you quit smoking, you immediately gain health benefits such as improved lung function, improved circulation and a new confidence to live a tobacco-free life. RHA provides a number of resources to assist you in quitting.

Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence: 2008 Update, a clinical practice guideline published by the U.S. Public Health Service, lists counseling, social support and quit smoking medications as scientifically proven methods to help people quit smoking for good. Counseling and quit smoking medication, when used in combination, are even more effective than either one of them alone.

Multiple quit smoking counseling options exist, including one-on-one and group programs such as RHA’s Courage to Quit® evidence-based program, online and telephone support. Each will help you address the psychological addiction to nicotine by giving you the tools and skills to become smoke-free.

Quit smoking medication can take the form of nicotine replacement therapy (patch, gum, lozenge, inhaler, nasal spray) or non-nicotine medications (bupropion, varenicline). Quit smoking medications reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings for cigarettes.

Although you may have heard claims that e-cigarettes, laser therapy, acupuncture and hypnosis will help you quit smoking, these are not evidence-based methods to quit smoking.