"Choking smoker, don't you know the joker laughs at you?"
- John Lennon, "I am the Walrus"
One of the most emotionally trying times of my life came when my father had a heart attack. I'll never forget standing by his bedside, looking at a man who had once been full of vigor and life but now had tubes and machines hooked to his body. Although he was only 45 years old at the time, he had smoked unfiltered cigarettes since he was a teenager. And, of course, the medical prognosis indicated that smoking nearly cost him his life.
The fact is that tobacco is deadly. Indeed, over 438,000 people die from smoking-related diseases every year. And incredibly, as recently reported by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, all tobacco brands have increased the nicotine dosage in each cigarette steadily during the last six years. The overall increase has been about 10% during 1998-2004. The higher the nicotine dose, the more hooked a person gets, making it much more difficult to quit. Thus, the tobacco industry has taken steps to secure sales by making people more addicted.
Moreover, public health officials recently issued an annual report calculating that one billion people worldwide will die from smoking in the next century if current trends continue. Indeed, smoking causes numerous kinds of cancer and heart and bone diseases.
But it's not just the smokers who are harmed. In fact, the Surgeon General has now issued a statement concerning the effects of secondhand smoke, declaring, "The science is clear: Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance but a serious health hazard. Even a few minutes of inhaling someone's smoke in a well-ventilated area can cause significant harm."
Thus, exposure to smoke is no longer questioned as a possible cause of illness in the medical world. And pregnant mothers who smoke put their unborn children at much higher risk for childhood cancers and genetic malformations. All these consequences are due to not only the addictive properties of nicotine but also to its high level of availability, few legal and social sanctions and expert marketing strategies. Thus, the evidence is clear: cigarettes should be regarded as lethal weapons.
Physicians consistently show that smoking cigarettes during pregnancy is not only dangerous for the mother but could also cause genetic damage to the fetus in utero. Studies have been conducted on amniotic fluid taken from women who smoked while pregnant and compared with the fluid of non-smoking women. Results show that there were 3.5 times more genetic abnormalities in the fetal cells of the smoking women. This provides evidence of tobacco-associated mutations and has important implications for the long-term health of children of mothers who smoke.
Maternal smoking affects between 10,000 and 100,000 babies per year. Many are lost in utero, with miscarriages being two to three times more common in smokers. Others, already weakened in the womb, do not survive the birth process due to low birth weight or pre-term delivery. Tens of thousands are admitted to intensive care units after birth for underdeveloped lungs or brain damage. Two-thirds of all cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome have also been attributed to maternal nicotine use.
The mothers are the problem: about 50% of pregnant smokers claim to have quit, but blood and urine tests revealed the actual percentage to be only 30%. Clearly, these women are aware of the dangers and stigmas associated with smoking during pregnancy but are either too afraid to seek help or have been unsuccessful in quitting. Plain and simple, these moms are addicted to a dangerous drug.
Tobacco marketing strategies are dastardly. Take, for example, the candy-flavored cigarettes targeted to children. With nearly 5,000 kids trying cigarettes for the first time each day and 2,000 in the 12-17 age group becoming daily smokers, deterrence instead of encouragement is needed. About 90% of smokers started before the age of 21. "It's appalling that the tobacco industry is not held responsible for the deadly products it continues to market and sell to young people," said John Kirkwood, president of the American Lung Association. "Clearly, the industry is trying to get young people hooked on smoking and nothing is being done to limit this targeted marketing." No wonder young adults (ages 18-25) have the highest reported usage of cigarettes. Teens, however, are not the only group deceived by tobacco companies. In 2003, 29.8% of the U.S. population (70.8 million people) used tobacco.
But aren't tobacco companies reducing the dangers of smoking by giving us less lethal weapons to inhale, such as so-called "light" cigarettes? Despite the hype, studies show that "light tar" cigarettes pose just as much of a health threat as the regular brand, an incredibly deceptive fact kept hidden from consumers. "Light" smokers (those smoking between one and four cigarettes per day) also face health risks similar to heavy smokers. These smokers were at a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease and cancer when compared to non-smokers. Quite simply, there is no safe level of smoking.
As a consequence of a nation toking on cigarettes, health care costs are soaring, with nearly $92 billion in direct medical costs attributable to smoking. However, this figure excludes indirect costs such as secondhand smoke inhalation, burn care from smoking-related fires and care for low birth-weight infants. Indirect and direct costs combined total nearly $167 billion yearly.
Government restriction of nicotine products is controversial and riddled with problems. And if any effective restrictions are challenged, the nation's highest court is liable to side with the tobacco industry. However, the inherent dangers of tobacco products cannot be ignored. Now that lack of information is no longer an issue, governmental agencies must take steps to limit both the hazards of and access to cigarettes. After all, the lives of our children are at stake.
This article was originally published on May 31, 2007.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.