Going up in smoke: your money, your health and your looks

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

December 2009

The good news is that only about 20 percent of Americans smoke. The bad news is that their smoking-related diseases have a huge impact on the healthcare budget — bigger than most people realize. We all pay for that either in the form of higher insurance premiums or higher taxes for Medicare and Medicaid. Every pack of cigarettes consumed costs the U.S. $2 in health care costs.

At the beginning of the 20th century lung cancer was uncommon. Most cases today are due to smoking and it represents the number one cancer in both men and women. Back then emphysema was an occupational hazard of glassblowers and trumpet players. As those occupations have waned, smoking has become the main cause of chronic lung disease.

It doesn't stop there. In 2004 the Surgeon General of the United States reported that smoking plays a major role in the development of cataracts, some forms of leukemia, kidney cancer and pancreatic cancer. It is a significant cause of prematurity and poor fetal growth. It damages the immune system and may predispose to ear infections in children whose parents smoke. Cigarette smoking is a contributing factor in gum disease and premature tooth loss.

Even if smokers can't see health problems they can't dodge the mirror as they watch themselves turning gray prematurely. Worse, smokers accumulate a protein in the skin that degrades collagen, one of the supporting elements of skin structure whose loss accelerates wrinkling.

As a former heavy smoker I am quite familiar with the addictive nature of smoking and the difficulty of quitting. I was no stranger to finding burns in a favorite jacket or sweater and the indignity of having to bum a smoke during a nicotine fit.

There is no single solution that fits everyone but there has never been a greater choice of cessation methods, many of which are covered by health insurance programs.

This year we will probably see a major restructuring of healthcare financing. The direct and indirect cost of tobacco-related illness is estimated at more than 100 billion dollars. Any new program should include measures that will help smokers to quit and to keep young persons from starting.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.