Smoking, Nurses, Knowledge: We’ve Come a Long Way, But Not Far Enough

By Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, AJN editor-in-chief

"Smoke break"/by sylvar, via Flickr

“Smoke break”/by sylvar, via Flickr

Back in the day, I remember riding in the car with my parents, both of whom smoked. My siblings and I used to jockey for the window seats so we could be near the fresh air streaming in.  And I recall holidays with visiting relatives when all the adults would sit in the living room smoking cigarettes. (Kent filter-tips for the women; Camels for the men.) And as kids, we used to “smoke” candy cigarettes. The ones that “puffed” when you blew into them were our favorites.

But I also recall getting older and not wanting to visit my Uncle Joe, a once tough New York City police detective, because he would just sit on the edge of his chair, leaning over a table and struggling to breathe. This made my dad quit cold turkey after he had a heart attack at age 48 and our family physician told him he could either keep smoking or quit and see his children get married. My mom quit when she was pregnant with my youngest sister, after the surgeon general’s report said smoking could harm the fetus.

Our parents were constantly telling us that they wished they’d never started (my dad began in the army, when cigarettes were standard issue for GIs), that it was a “dirty habit” and an expensive one—and “don’t forget Uncle Joe.” Their efforts paid off—neither I nor any of my six siblings smoke today. Ironically, while I repeated those same messages (bolstered with more clinical information) to my three sons, two of them took up smoking during adolescence. Fortunately, they did stop, but not from my efforts—their girlfriends (who later became wives) pushed them into quitting .

Fifty years ago this month, U. S. Surgeon General Luther Terry issued the landmark report first identifying tobacco’s harmful effects; this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a special anniversary report highlighting advances in knowledge about and prevention efforts against smoking. We know a great deal more now about just how harmful tobacco smoke is—the CDC estimates that since that first report was issued, over 20 million people have died from preventable smoking-related diseases.

It’s important for health professionals to model good behavior, but too often we rely on “do as I say, not as I do” when it comes to encouraging healthy behavior. However, a study published in the January 8 issue of JAMA does inspire hope: smoking among RNs decreased by 36% between 2003 and 2011.

If you smoke, stopping is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. But it’s not easy. There are a plethora of resources to help people kick the habit. Check out the resources offered by the CDC or the American Cancer Society, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the American Lung Association.

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Related AJN posts:

“Nurses Take on Big Tobacco”

“Smokers Need Not Apply for This Nursing Job”

“Obesity and Advice: Should Nurses Practice What They Preach?”

2016-11-21T13:05:36+00:00 January 22nd, 2014|nursing perspective|3 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Andy January 28, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Great blog post! I remember my dad smoking when I was growing up. My mom forced him to smoke outside because my sister and I would cough non-stop. Sadly, my father passed away from lung cancer even after having many discussions how one day cigarettes would eventually take his life.

    It’s nice to see that the statistics are showing a decline in smoking among healthcare providers. I never understood how a nurse or doctor would advise a patient to stop smoking but then they’d go outside and smoke during their breaks.

    Btw, I remember the candy cigarettes also! Funny how certain things were socially acceptable in the past. It would be an outrage if a candy company sold those today.

  2. Peggy McDaniel January 27, 2014 at 2:40 am

    Thanks for the great blog! Also brings back memories for me.
    My father passed away (albeit at age 81) from COPD and emphysema. He was sharp as a tack and had passed the MENSA exam a year earlier, with his 02 tank in tow. (He had read about MENSA and thought it would be fun to take the test.) He started smoking in the military just like Shawn’s father and smoked for about 25 years then stopped. My mom kept smoking a few years longer.
    Watching my dad slowly lose the ability to take a breath was one of the most difficult things I’ve experienced so far in my life. I’m sure there are many of us out there that have had personal experience with this as well as taken care of many patients in the same situation.
    I’m thankful that my early attempts to smoke, just to be cool, didn’t really go anywhere. None of my 5 siblings smoke today, the last one to quit was my younger brother who was with my mom at home the night our dad died and spent the last year living at home to help.
    As a nurse I attempt to live as healthy a life as I can and hopefully by example am a role model to a few people.
    Let’s all do what we can to promote the healthiest population possible!

  3. Kenya January 23, 2014 at 9:35 am

    What a touching story. It brought back similar “car trip”memories. As nurses we should try to practice what we preach but also empathize with our patients for we oftentimes share similar struggles

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