2019 Jun 25
Over the past years, smoking has become more of a social and cultural construct. Be it to mingle with friends or socialise with colleagues, anywhere you go in Colombo, smoking has become a favourite pastime. Needless to say, the topic of smoking and its repercussions have long been forgotten and the consequences of this popular habit especially amongst the younger generations have become easy to brush off.
We had the pleasure of talking to Dr Yamuna Rajapakse, Consultant Respiratory Physician and Senior Lecturer to get her opinion on the issue, allowing us to bring this topic back to the spotlight and outline why exactly smoking, despite being a social construct, is detrimental for our health because younger generations need to at the very least know what exactly they might be getting themselves into.
The biology behind it
As Dr Rajapakse emphasised, smoking damages the lungs by allowing certain toxins to enter the respiratory system. It does this by several means. The first means is by damaging the fine protective structures that line the insides of the respiratory tract, (also known as cilia). These cilia are usually tasked with trapping and moving toxins and dust out of the system. Cilia are destroyed by the components of the smoke that enters our lungs thus making your respiratory system vulnerable to all kinds of particulate matters- dust, pollen, animal fur, infection carrying organisms etc.
Smoking, Lung Cancer & Other Conditions
There is a significant link between smokers and lung cancer. In fact, lung cancer has the third highest killing rate in the country when it comes to males. The next major condition linked to smoking is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This begins with a chronic smoker’s cough, which comes about due to ongoing airway inflammation and damage to protective cilia in the lungs, thus leading to an accumulation of phlegm. This persistent cough later can give way to a condition similar to asthma, marked by wheezing and breathlessness, which unfortunately can’t be reversed with medication. This is COPD. Similarly, the lack of a protective layer may leave the lungs open to other respiratory diseases as well.
Are younger people more vulnerable to the effects of smoking?
We can divide this section into young children and young adults. People that smoke in the presence of younger children can irritate the children’s lungs, especially if they suffer from an asthmatic condition. If a woman who’s pregnant continues to smoke, the components of the smoke will enter the bloodstream of the baby and halt the fetal growth of the lungs. While there is no guarantee that this child will be diagnosed with lung cancer as he grows into an adult, his lungs definitely won’t grow to reach full adult volume and will also likely suffer from spasms.
When talking about young adults who smoke themselves, it all boils down to something called cumulative effect. For example, a man who takes up smoking at 40 and is now 70, would have an accumulated 30 years of smoking and yet have a better pair of lungs than a man of the same age who started smoking at 18. By starting younger, your lungs end up being in worse condition therefore in that sense, you could say that they are more vulnerable to the effects of smoking.
How bad is passive smoking?
A lot of us who don’t smoke end up inhaling second-hand smoke pretty often. Does this put us at risk of diseases like lung cancer as well? The answer is yes, and probably even more so because as passive smokers you are exposed to two forms of smoke- the ‘sidestream smoke’, which comes from the end of the lit cigarette and the ‘mainstream smoke’, exhaled by the smoker. Both of which contain carcinogens (a cancer-causing substance).
Is shisha not as bad?
Plenty of people resort to shisha, claiming the effects are not even as half as bad as a cigarette. However, this depends. Some tend to have nicotine properties, making the exposure just as bad as that of a cigarette. Others claim that the water used in the pipe absorbs the nicotine, making the entire smoking session harmless. Using a water medium itself opens up many more problems. If people aren’t careful with their equipment and don’t clean it out properly, then this water medium is the ideal place for bacteria and fungi to grow. It is also a group activity where the apparatus is shared around, so keeping both these facts in mind, this apparatus can be the ideal carrier to pass around infections or breed bacteria.
Smoking and the environment
As Dr Rajapakse stated, diseases like lung cancer used to be a common occurrence in 60 to 70-year-old smoking males. Now, you find them in 40-year-old non-smokers. She has even had patients come in as young as 25 (with exposure to passive smoking) diagnosed with cancer. She makes a valid point that there’s been an increase of cancers found in younger people and it may not just be cigarette smoking at play here. Our pollution levels are on the rise, and there are a lot of toxins like nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere that are causing irreversible lung damage. Our lungs are filters that cannot choose what crosses them. Given all these toxins we inhale on a daily basis, when we also add active or passive smoking to the mix, our chances of developing cancer become far higher.
Prevention is always better than the cure, especially with regards to a fatal disease like lung cancer. If possible, this habit is something that is far better never being taken up at all and being dropped if you have already taken it up. But if that’s not possible, you can at the very least be more mindful about how much you consume on a daily basis. Remember, it is never too late to quit.
Picture courtesy of Andre Forget / The National