While the dangerous effects of smoking tobacco are now public and accepted, it remains a leading cause of illness and death for our species. This is likely do in large part to the fact that nicotine, a stimulant in tobacco, has been found to be as addictive as many “hard” and illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin and amphetamines. A December 2017 study in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology reports that smokers tend to incorrectly predict that the health risks they will face from this habit are far off in the future. The research was conducted by the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Surrey.
“The onset time delaying effect: smokers versus non-smokers place the adverse consequences of smoking further in the future,” involved a survey of 162 smokers and non-smokers about how they perceived the speed of onset of smoking-related issues. They were asked to evaluate the severity and speed of the health risks a young smoker could expect to face – specifically, an 18-year-old smoking 10 cigarettes a day. Smoking-related conditions ranging from mild (bad breath, yellowing teeth) to severe (stroke, lung cancer) were included in the survey. In the study abstract, the authors state that smokers were particularly inaccurate at this “time estimation task,” revealing a “distorted temporal perception” of the dangers of smoking.
Dr. Patrice Rusconi of the University of Surrey, Social Emotions and Equality in Relations (SEER) research group, says “… what we have found is that smokers perceive such hazards to be further in the future compared to those who don't smoke. This distorted perception is incredibly dangerous for those who do smoke, and may lead people to delay quitting smoking or screening for smoking-related conditions, increasing their risk of developing a serious illness."
In the UK, smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable illness and death. It leads to an estimated 79,000 deaths and 474,000 hospital admissions yearly. In the U.S., smoking is also the leading cause of preventable death and the mortality rate for smokers is about three times higher than for non-smokers. It causes more than 480,000 annual deaths.
Smokeless tobacco products such as dip and chew are also dangerous and lead to cancer of the mouth, esophagus and pancreas. While the long-term risks of using e-cigarettes, or vaping, is still somewhat unclear, they do deliver the toxic and addictive component of traditional cigarettes – nicotine – and can also contain harmful ingredients in their aerosol substance. “Because these products aren’t regulated, it’s impossible to know what’s in an e-cigarette,” Yui Mok of NBC News points out. A 2017 study showed they cause similar amounts of damage to cells as cigarettes. A 2018 study found vapers are likely to switch to traditional smoking within a year.
Nicotine-cessation products like gum, lozenges and patches are recommended as alternative methods to cutting back on cigarettes. While withdrawing from any addictive substance is incredibly challenging, online support resources that may be helpful include Stop Smoking, from the American Lung Association, Quit.com and Smokefree.gov. Within a few years of quitting, the risk for heart disease, stroke and related cancers will drop significantly. Quitting before age 40 reduces about 90 percent of the risk for smoking-related disease.