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Americans Quit Puffing for the Great American Smokeout

  • Rachel Chavez

If Thursday's air quality seemed better than usual, the American Cancer Society gets the credit. Thursday was the Society's Great American Smokeout, an event that has been held every November 17th for the past 29 years.

In 2004, there were nearly 45 million adult smokers in the United States, and with every cigarette, experts say, they are shortening their lives. The amount of time it takes to light and smoke a cigarette is the same amount of time that is lost from a smoker's lifespan, so all of those cigarettes add up.

The good news is, the percentage of smokers in the United States is declining steadily. Still, on average, 50% of those who start lighting up in adolescence continue to smoke for 15 to 20 years. But smoker Mary Whiteside hopes her habit will soon be a thing of the past. "There is nothing good about smoking," she admits. "All it does is mess up your lungs. I am prone to getting sick and it gives you bronchitis and pneumonia, especially when the seasons change. There is absolutely no reason why I smoke. I am just a moron."

Like many American smokers, she wants to kick the habit, however challenging that effort may be. But she is not doing it alone. She explains, "I promised my girlfriend. She is quitting, too. It's a pact. I always say, 'Oh, yes, I am going to quit,' and then something happens." Looking around the busy coffee shop where she works, she indicates that having a cigarette is the only way she could really get a break. "It's a very enabling environment. If you don't smoke, then you can't really escape for a little while."

Support can be very important to becoming a non-smoker and that is what the American Cancer Society provides each November 17th. Society spokesperson Angela Collins calls The Great American Smokeout "a national day of recognition where we encourage all smokers across the nation to plan to stop smoking on this day, just for one day, to not smoke." She says health experts recognize that it's not easy to stop smoking. "But we want the community to know that the American Cancer Society is there to support you, and that there are tools and resources that we can provide you to embark on this endeavor."

The Great American Smokeout has touched many smokers since its debut almost three decades ago. Rita Hummel has not smoked for 23 years. She understands the struggles of trying to quit, and credits her success to the Great American Smokeout. "That's the day, almost 23 years ago, when I decided to stop smoking," she recalls. "When I was preparing to quit, I kept a list in my billfold of things that I hated. For example, one of the things I put on there was, when I was smoking a cigarette, I dropped an ash onto my brand new wool skirt. It burned through the skirt, burned my stockings, and me. I put that on my list along with other things [that were] just as annoying. And whenever I wanted a cigarette, I'd look at that."

Once a smoker quits, there are physical reactions resulting from depriving the body of nicotine. As American Cancer Society medical official, Elmer Huerta, points out, "Nicotine, the drug in the cigarettes, is a drug that is ten times more addictive than cocaine, and it is 15 times more addictive than heroin." He explains that the smoker's body goes through withdrawal with symptoms like headaches, irritability, and lack of concentration.

Dr. Huerta says the Great American Smokeout is now a tradition, and that 20% of the people who quit for the one day of the Smokeout have a greater chance of quitting for longer … if not for good. "Probably the single most important element in quitting smoking is thinking about it," he says. "Thinking about quitting, but thinking seriously and planning a date to quit, and then to get some help from friends or from health professionals to help them over this addiction."

The Great American Smokeout can give Americans the support they need in order to quit and quit successfully. These same principles can be applied to help people anywhere quit smoking. More information and support from the American Cancer Society can be found online at www.cancer.org, and www.quitforyou.org.

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