Your Health

Butt out

Butt out

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2011

If every smoker in Winnipeg could overcome their addiction tomorrow, our city's average life expectancy would increase dramatically. Simply put, smoking remains one of the leading causes of premature death in Winnipeg and across the country.

A 2007 report published in Chronic Diseases Canada tells the story: Smoking tobacco is implicated in more than one-fifth of all the deaths in Canada of people aged 35 years and older. It is the leading cause of lung, mouth and throat cancers and chronic obstructive lung illnesses, like emphysema. It's also a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.

In 2009, the Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey reported that 18.9 per cent of Manitobans were daily smokers, compared to the national average of 17.5 per cent. Saskatchewan had the highest smoking rate of any province at 22.3 per cent, while British Columbia had the lowest at 14.9 per cent.

The problem with smoking is that it is not easy to quit. Several studies have found that the nicotine found in tobacco is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

Yet the benefits of quitting smoking - even for a short period of time - are well documented, says Margie Kvern, Program Specialist for the Winnipeg Health Region's Tobacco Reduction program.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, within 24 hours of quitting, the risk of heart attack decreases. After three months of being smoke-free, lung function increases by 30 per cent. And 15 years after quitting, the risk of heart disease is the same as a lifetime non-smoker, and the risk of lung cancer is less than half that of a continuing smoker.

Still, quitting isn't easy, and many smokers will try several times unsuccessfully before butting out permanently. The key is to keep trying. "We like to frame it that every time you stop smoking, you learn something about how you smoke, why you smoke, what makes you want to stop smoking," says Kvern.

And there are a number of smoking cessation products to help make each attempt more likely to succeed. Over-the-counter products - nicotine gum, lozenges, patches and inhalers - provide low doses of the nicotine to ease withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, agitation, chills, cold sweats, sleeplessness and constipation.

Other medications - like Zyban and Champix - are available by prescription. Both work on our brain chemistry to ease withdrawal and abate our desire to smoke.

"These aren't silver bullets," Kvern says. Medications may ease the withdrawal, which is at its worst in the first few days after quitting, and lasts up to three weeks. But it's our behaviour and habits surrounding the smoking that can be the hardest to kick, she says. Smoking can be a social lubricant and a stress coping mechanism for many, and that's why having a detailed smoking plan is often essential to success.

Kvern says the more smokers think about the reasons they smoke, the reasons they should quit and how they're going to deal with situations and feelings that make them want to smoke, the more likely they're going to be able to manage withdrawal and the sense of loss often associated with butting out.

Kvern says those looking to quit smoking can take advantage of cessation resources offered by Smoker's Helpline, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Manitoba Lung Association.

While everyone will find their own way to quit, the most important thing is to at least try to give up the addiction, she says. It's not easy. It may even feel like losing an old friend. "But in the end, this is the kind of friend that will end up killing half of its long-time users," Kvern says.

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About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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