We all know that smoking is really, really bad for you. Tobacco and chemicals in cigarettes cause damage throughout the body, and not only to lungs and airways. Your liver, stomach, pancreas, bladder, eyes, almost every part of your body is adversely affected when you smoke. Smoking increases risk of cardiovascular disease and causes 1 out of every 5 deaths in the U.S. every year. It is the leading cause of preventable death, increases risk for diabetes, and is directly linked to COPD, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Oh, plus cancer.
If you have access to the internet and/or at least one preachy friend, you probably know much of this already. And if the health risks alone haven’t been enough to convince you to quit, consider the environmental impact.
Smoking and Air Pollution
Studies have shown that cigarette smoke produces particulate matter at up to ten times the rate of diesel exhaust. Particulate matter is regulated by the EPA and includes airborne particles from soot and smoke to sulfur dioxide. It falls into two classifications according to size - coarse (or PM10) and fine (or PM2.5). Fine particle pollution/PM2.5 is a classified carcinogen and has been linked to premature death from heart or lung disease, among other health issues. It varies by brand, but, on average, a cigarette weighing less than a gram emits 14 mg of PM2.5 and as much as 23 mg of PM2.5. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough that a single cigarette smoked indoors puts indoor air quality below what is considered safe by federal ambient air quality standards.
We all learned about secondhand smoke in health class, so we know that smoking harms more than the smoker. A less familiar term - “involuntary smoking” - better describes a person’s exposure to secondhand smoke. Tobacco combustion, i.e. burning a cigarette, results in more than 7,000 chemical by-products, including hundreds of toxins and nearly 70 listed carcinogens. Here are just a few: acetone, ammonia, arsenic, butane, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, lead, methanol, nicotine, and tar. Many of these are transferred to secondhand smoke, releasing poisons and carcinogens into the environment.
Cultivation and Manufacturing
The smoke isn’t even the start of it. The cultivation of tobacco and manufacture of tobacco products, including cigarettes, produces air pollutants long before you light up.
Cultivating tobacco is chemically intensive. For all the damage it can inflict, it’s surprisingly susceptible to certain pests and requires heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. Many of these can waft skyward or permeate the ground to wreak havoc on the atmosphere and water supply.
Manufacturing cigarettes also creates chemical byproducts, including ammonia, hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid, and many others, not to mention requires the harvest of trees for rolling paper.
Here’s the final kicker: cigarette butts are the most littered item in the U.S. We toss millions of them onto sidewalks and out of car windows every year. The numbers vary by geography, but cigarette butts make up between 25% and 50% of litter collected in clean-up efforts. Filters in those butts are made of plastic, which means - contrary to popular belief - they don’t biodegrade quickly. They also leach toxins and carcinogens that make their way into the environment where they pollute waterways and poison wildlife. A study performed at San Diego found that adding a single cigarette butt with traces of tobacco to a liter of water would kill up to 50% of fish. These are the same waterways we fish, tap for drinking water, and splash around in for recreation - polluted with toxins from a seemingly tiny, but potent, kind of litter.
Smoking and Central Indiana
In 2012, Indiana implemented the Smoke Free Air Law to protect citizens from secondhand smoke exposure and the associated health risks. The law made smoking illegal in most public spaces and workplaces, restaurants, public entrance spaces and government vehicles. Even though laws like these - along with better awareness education - have led Indiana’s smoking rate to fall considerably since 2011, we still have one of the highest in the nation at 22%. In fact, we rank 44th in the nation for smoking prevalence. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
Quitting comes with its fair share of challenges. Some of them you expect - nicotine cravings, jitters, anxiety - and some of them may catch you by surprise, e.g. tearing into a waiter because they forgot your “no pickles” request or bursting into tears when the grocery is out of your favorite brand of peanut butter. Quitting cigarettes is like leaving an abusive relationship. It’s going to be emotional, confusing, and harder than logic can make sense of at times. Resist the nagging urge to second guess yourself. Quitting smoking is one of the single most impactful decisions you can make to improve you health - and quality of life . Your lungs, your loved ones, and your environment will thank you for it.
Just as the risks of smoking are cumulative, so are the returns of quitting. Consider this:
On top of the relief you’ll give your body, you’ll save $2,190 a year - more if you average more than a pack per day. You’ll also prevent 7,300 cigarette butts from being washed into our rivers and oceans and more than 100,000 mg of toxins from entering the environment. If every U.S. smoker quit - all 40 million - imagine the results.
Are you ready to quit smoking or know someone who is? There are an inexhaustible number of resources available for you. Below are a few to get you started. You should also check with your insurance provider, as many health insurance plans will partially or entirely cover the cost of cessation programs, medications and even nicotine replacement therapy.