Most people associate cigarette smoking with breathing problems and lung cancer. But smoking is also a major cause of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease.
Smoking and tobacco use are significant risk factors for a variety of chronic disorders. According to the American Heart Association, cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States, accounting for 440,000 of the more than 2.4 million annual deaths.
Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis — a buildup of fatty substances in the arteries. Atherosclerosis occurs when the normal lining of the arteries deteriorates, the walls of the arteries thicken and deposits of fat and plaque block the flow of blood through the arteries. In coronary artery disease, the arteries that supply blood to the heart become severely narrowed, decreasing the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, especially during times of increased activity. Extra strain on the heart may result in chest pain (angina pectoris) and other symptoms. When one or more of the coronary arteries are completely blocked, a heart attack (injury to the heart muscle) may occur.
In peripheral artery disease, atherosclerosis affects the arteries that carry blood to the arms and legs. As a result, the patient may experience painful cramping of the leg muscles when walking (a condition called intermittent claudication). Peripheral artery disease also increases the risk of stroke.
A person's risk of heart attack greatly increases with the number of cigarettes he or she smokes. There is no safe amount of smoking. Smokers continue to increase their risk of heart attack the longer they smoke. People who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day have more than twice the risk of heart attack than nonsmokers.
Women who smoke and also use oral contraceptives (birth control pills) increase several times their risk of coronary and peripheral artery diseases, heart attack and stroke, compared with nonsmoking women who use oral contraceptives.
Cigarettes have multiple poisons, including addictive nicotine, carbon monoxide, "tars" and hydrogen cyanide. There are 4,000 other chemicals of varying toxicity, including 43 known carcinogens.
Cigarette smoke does not just affect smokers. When you smoke, the people around you are also at risk for developing health problems, especially children. Environmental tobacco smoke (also called passive smoke or second-hand smoke) affects people who are frequently around smokers. Second-hand smoke can cause chronic respiratory conditions, cancer and heart disease.
The American Heart Association estimates that each year, about 37,000 to 40,000 people die from heart and blood vessel disease caused by other people's smoke.
Now that you know how smoking can be harmful to your health and the health of those around you, here's how quitting smoking can be helpful. If you quit smoking, you will:
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