It was 38 years ago, that the California Division of the American Cancer Society got nearly 1 million smokers to quit for the day, taking up a challenge made by a man to his fellow citizens in his hometown.

That challenge was to give up cigarettes for one day and donate the money they would have spent on smoking to a high school scholarship fund. It became the Great American Smokeout and every third Thursday in November (Nov. 20 this year) I add my name to challenge my patients and those of you who are reading this.

In spite of the fact that, throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, many state and local governments initiated smoking bans, raised taxes on cigarettes, limited cigarette promotions and discouraged teen tobacco use, nearly one in five of us still smoke. Smoking is still responsible for nearly one in three cancer deaths, and one in five deaths from all causes. More than 8.5 million people live with serious illnesses caused by smoking. And it's not just smokers. Since 1964, 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from exposure to secondhand smoke. Separating smokers from nonsmokers within the same air space via filtration and ventilating buildings does not eliminate secondhand smoke exposure.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals. About 70 of them are known to cause cancer. Smoking cigarettes is the number-one risk factor for lung cancer and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and is also known to cause leukemia. Smoking affects your entire body, and is known to cause other cancers such as: 

• Trachea

• Bronchus

• Esophagus

• Oral/mouth

• Lip

• Nasopharynx (a rare type of head and neck cancer)

• Nasal Cavity

• Larynx

• Stomach

• Bladder

• Pancreas

• Kidney

• Liver

• Uterine cervix

• Colon

• Rectum

The good news is, when you stop smoking, the benefits begin almost immediately.

• Within a mere 20 minutes of your last cigarette, your heart rate and blood pressure will drop.

• In 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal levels.

• In two to three months, your circulation improves and your lung function increases.

• In less than nine months, your coughing and shortness of breath will decrease. Your lungs will be able to handle mucus, clean the lungs and reduce its risk of infection.

• In one year, your risk of heart disease is cut by half the risk had you continued to smoke.

• In five years, the risk of many cancers associated with smoking are cut in half and cervical cancer risk is that of a non smoker. Your risk of stroke can fall to that of a non smoker within this time frame.

• By 10 years out, your risk of dying from lung cancer is about half of that who still smoke. And in 15 years, your risk of coronary heart disease becomes that of a non-smoker.

As a former smoker, I understand completely how difficult the cessation process is and share those concerns with my patients who want to stop smoking. Nicotine, the drug found naturally in tobacco, is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Over time, this physical dependence causes unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit.

Tobacco addiction is both mental and physical. For most people, the best way to quit will be some combination of medicine, a method to change personal habits, and emotional support.

• Ride out the desire to smoke. It will go away, but don't fool yourself into thinking you can have just one.

• Avoid alcohol. Drinking lowers your chance of success.

• If you're worried about weight gain, put some energy into planning a healthy diet and finding ways to exercise and stay active.

• Don't post your intentions through social media. You might set yourself up for relapse.

Think about participating in this year's Great American Smokeout. You have little to lose and everything to gain.


Dr. Michael J. Liston is a cardiologist with St. Mary's Medical Center and can be reached at 816-220-1117.