(Second Hand) Smoke and Mirrors

Monday, March 22, 2010

I grew up in a house that was full of cigarette smoke. Both of my parents smoked. So did our friends and neighbors. When my older siblings grew up and got married, both of their spouses smoked. I remember countless family gatherings where the air was literally blue from cigarette smoke.

Our house reeked of smoke even when no one was puffing away. The drapes, the furniture, even the walls smelled like cigarettes. My parents smoked at the table during meals.

From an early age I hated the stench. I couldn’t stand the way my clothing smelled when I left the house for school. Even the clean laundry smelled of smoke. I remember stuffing a towel under my bedroom door in a futile attempt to keep the smell out.

What I didn’t understand was that the smell was the least of my problems.

I had numerous ear infections from childhood until my mid teen years. My siblings and I suffered frequent bouts of bronchitis throughout childhood, but no one made the connection.

My father took my dislike of cigarette smoke as a personal affront. “Everybody in the world smokes, and you’re just going to have to get used to it!” he shouted one day as I left the room when he lit up.

As I write this, I am dealing with a severe bout of bronchitis. It happens every winter, sometimes more than once. I thought I had dodged this year’s bullet—it is almost spring, right? But here I am, hacking like a three-pack-a-day smoker. In spite of my father’s warning, I never did take up smoking. But I wonder if my body’s tendency to put out the welcome mat for every stray respiratory virus is the result of the years I spent growing up in a blue haze.

We’ve come a long way since I was a kid. Many communities have no-smoking ordinances, and it’s easy to find smoke-free places to play and eat with your family. But even now, in 2010, nearly half of all kids in the United States live with a smoker.

I know many parents who smoke who are aware of the risks, and many of them try to minimize the exposure for their kids by smoking in another room or cracking the car window. The trouble is that the particles in smoke are so small that they can travel throughout your home or car very quickly. Opening a window or closing the door just doesn’t cut it, and if you believe it does—you’re fooling yourself.

We know a lot more about the effects of second hand smoke now than we did when I was a kid. For instance, we now know that secondhand smoke contains more than 250 chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-causing), including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide. Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke are inhaling many of the same cancer-causing substances and poisons as smokers! These chemicals irritate the nose, sinuses, lungs, and middle ear. Kids exposed to these chemicals have a much higher rate of infections and asthma. The likelihood of needing tubes inserted in the ears goes way up when kids are exposed to cigarette smoke.

The best way to protect kids from exposure to second hand smoke is by not smoking at all. Yeah, it’s a hard habit to break—but it’s not impossible. Think about it…what parent really wants to expose kids to arsenic or benzene or vinyl chloride?

Caring4Cancer.com has a free online tool to help smokers figure out whether they are ready to quit and what steps they can take to assure success. The program can be found at http://www.caring4cancer.com/go/colorectal/prevention/are-you-ready-to-quit-smoking.htm

Here are some other online tools for smokers who are considering quitting:

Smokefree.gov: Tools to help You Quit http://www.smokefree.gov/tools.aspx

American Cancer Society: Guide to Quitting Smoking http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ped/content/ped_10_13x_guide_for_quitting_smoking.asp

Pathways to Freedom: Winning the Fight Against Tobacco http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/quit_smoking/how_to_quit/pathways/pdfs/pathways.pdf

Office of the Surgeon General: Tobacco Cessation - You Can Quit Smoking Now! http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/tobacco/

"If people don't love themselves enough to stop their smoking, they may love someone else enough to do it." (anonymous smoker)

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