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Luis Fábregas

Smoking appraisal turns 50

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

You gotta love smokers.

The sub-zero weather that slammed the region this week didn't seem to affect them one bit.

I observed plenty of office workers sneaking outside to puff on cigarettes. It was quite fascinating to watch them, their faces covered with scarves, their gloved hands trying to hold onto a cigarette.

“Got to get my fix,” one of them told me as I strolled out of my office building on the North Shore.

Surely some of these brave smokers are unaware that today is the 50th anniversary of 1964's landmark surgeon general report on smoking. The report highlighted the addictive power of nicotine as well as the dangers of secondhand smoking. It was the country's first wake-up call about a habit that many people took up just for the fun of it.

A lot has happened in half a century. Smoking rates have dropped 59 percent. Long gone are the smoking sections at Eat N' Park and offices where you could find an ashtray next to the paper clip holder. Big employers such as UPMC won't even allow workers to smoke during the workday.

More significantly, at least 8 million premature, smoking-related deaths were prevented from 1964 to 2012, according to an analysis published this month in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. Those 8 million people gained an average of 20 years of life, the analysis showed.

Yet the fight is far from over. Just about 42 million Americans still smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, roughly 30 percent of men smoke and about 8 percent of women smoke. Young people aren't afraid to give smoking a try, with more than 3,000 teens picking up their first cigarette every day, according to one anti-smoking advocacy group. The high school smoking rate, which shot up to 36.4 percent in 1997, dropped to 18.1 percent in 2011, but that's still a lot of young people who assume they look cool with a cigarette in their hand.

While some smokers show decorum and respect to those of us who don't smoke, a notable few continue to engage in exceedingly annoying habits. Some toss cigarettes out of cars (my ultimate pet peeve) while young mothers push strollers and blow smoke near their young children.

“Nicotine is still highly addictive,” Dr. Hilary Tindle, a UPMC internist who specializes in smoking cessation, told me.

It's no surprise that health and anti-smoking advocates are using the report's 50th anniversary to highlight the harms of smoking. Those dangers aren't new but remain exceedingly relevant: cancer, heart disease, emphysema, stroke, not to mention how it can affect things we don't think about, such as infant mortality.

Some might argue that lives could be saved through policy changes such as increasing cigarette taxes and passing more smoke-free laws. But the truth is smoking needs to be treated as the addiction that it is.

The brain loves how nicotine triggers all sorts of chemicals that make some people feel better. That's why we'll never get rid of smoking, just as we'll never get rid of alcohol — people just like to feel good.

If we can't get smokers to quit altogether, at the very least we can convince them that they look ridiculous when they're puffing away in zero-degree weather.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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