Lungs are not at the heart of the habit of smoking

2009-09-26 13:13

When one thinks of lighting up, the odds are lung cancer and diseases of the respiratory system spring to mind. Butthe effect of smoking on health goes far beyond that, writes Mokgadi Seabi.

FOR years, all the health warnings on cigarette packets and advertisements have been about how “smoking is bad for your lungs”. According to experts, however, smoking is also detrimental to ­perhaps the most important organ of the body – the heart.

According to Dr Jeff King, a specialist physician cardiologist in private practice at Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg, cigarette smoke is ­also a major contributor to the diseases of the heart and blood vessels that are the number one cause of death worldwide.

“Smoking is the leading cause of preventable cardiovascular disease in South Africa, claiming three times as many lives as motor vehicle accidents,” says King.

“Smoking affects the heart and blood vessels at cellular level, causing damage to the lining of the arteries and veins. This damage has direct ­toxic effects, promoting inflamma­tory processes and predisposing smokers to muscle spasms and blood- clotting. Inflammation caused by smoking drives the clotting, which is the primary pathway leading to complications such as heart attack, angina and stroke. It’s a vicious circle, with the consequent decrease in blood supply to the heart and brain resulting in further cell damage and cell death.”

Given this, King is especially concerned about the dangers of smoking to adolescents and even children. This is the vulnerable period during which the habit is acquired, with ­potentially devastating long-term health implications.

King feels that children and adolescents need to be educated about the dangers of smoking – dangers that go beyond cigarettes. “One of the newer party trends is the widespread use of the hookah, also known as the hubbly bubbly and the oka. There is a false perception that this is somehow safe, but that’s not true. Those who use it are also inhaling the same vaporised nicotine and other particulate matter such as tar which are what make cigarettes so dangerous and addictive.”

King notes that because smoking is such a key factor in heart disease, the tougher new legislation should see the overall incidence decrease.

“Preliminary research suggests this is already starting to happen, which is encouraging,” he says.

He concludes by pointing out that nicotine and the other harmful substances are the most important issues and should not be clouded by debate over different modalities of smoking. The latter include the so-called “electronic cigarette”, which purports not to be a tobacco product yet uses the same vaporised nicotine as the hookah. It is often touted as a smoking cessation tool.

“All tobacco products are bad,” says King. “Non-healthcare products can put you at risk of heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses. When it comes to stopping smoking, you need to stick to legal medicinal products and use these under the supervision of a health professional.”

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