My uncle Joe embodied the persona of the old-time tough NYC Irish detective—he was over six feet tall, had piercing blue eyes and white hair, always wore a tan raincoat, and always had a cigarette in his hand. As a child, my siblings and I were always a little bit afraid of him. That image faded, though, and my last image of him was hunched over, with an oxygen cannula, trying to breathe. All those cigarettes added up, and after a lifetime of smoking, he died from chronic lung disease. This was before the landmark report on smoking and health issued by the U.S. surgeon general in 1964.
Today is the 41st annual Great American Smokeout—the day created by the American Cancer Society (ACS) to help encourage smokers to quit smoking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and is responsible for “more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including nearly 42,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.”
Efforts to curb smoking have shown results—from 2005 to 2015, the prevalence rate among American adults dropped from 20.9% to 15.1%, including a 1.7% reduction during 2014–2015 alone. But that still leaves over 36 million adults who smoke—and are therefore putting themselves at increased risk for many diseases, including heart and lung disease, cancers, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Buerger’s disease, and others.
But help quitting smoking is available. Both the CDC, which offers the Tips from Former Smokers campaign and Smokefree.gov, and the American Cancer Society, which offers a site, Great American Smokeout Event Tools and Resources, have many resources, including quitting smoking apps, how to make a quit plan, mobile reminders, and telephone help lines in several languages. For the ACS help line, call 1-800-227-2345; you can reach the CDC help lines at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or 1-855-DÉJELO-YA (1-855-335-3569).
Challenge your family, friend, and your patients who smoke—quit at least for today. Maybe it will lead to another day, and so on, and so on. It was too late for my uncle Joe, but it doesn’t have to be too late for those in your life.