If you're one of the more than 50 million Americans who still smoke, the health benefits of quitting are immediate and substantial, according to the U.S. Surgeon General annual report on smoking and health made public today.
The evidence is overwhelming that kicking the nicotine habit "has major and immediate health benefits for men and women of all ages, even those in the older age groups," says the report.
And, it stresses, the benefits apply to persons with and without smoking-related disease. Even smokers who have already developed cancer may benefit from smoking cessation.
Although relevant data is sparse, the report said longer survival might be expected among smokers with cancer or other serious illnesses if they stop smoking.
"Smoking cessation represents the single most important step that smokers can take to enhance the length and quality of their lives," said Dr. Antonia C. Novello, the surgeon general.
For the first time, the surgeon general's 21st annual report on smoking systematically reviews the health benefits and consequences of smoking cessation.
The report was developed by the Office of Smoking and Health, Center for Chronic Disease Prevention, federal Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Public Health Services, based on data produced by more than 120 scientists.
Other major conclusions of the report are:
* Former smokers live longer than continuing smokers, according to an analysis of data from the American Cancer Society's Cancer Prevention Study II. For example, people who quit smoking before age 50 have one-half the risk of dying in the next 15 years compared with those who continue to puff away.
* Quitting smoking decreases the risk of lung cancer, many other cancers, heart attack, stroke, chronic lung diseases and respiratory illnesses. For example, the risk of lung cancer for former smokers drops to as much as one-half that of continuing smokers after 10 years. The risk continues to decline with additional years of staying smoke-free.
* There are unique benefits for women who stop smoking. For example, if all women quit smoking during pregnancy, about 5 percent of the deaths among newborn infants could be prevented. And, women who kick the habit before trying to get pregnant are as likely to get pregnant as women who have never smoked. About 25 percent of pregnant women in this country smoke throughout pregnancy.
* And, finally, the health benefits of smoking cessation far exceed any risks from the average five-pound weight gain or any adverse psychological effects that may follow quitting. These include anxiety, frustration, anger and difficulty concentrating.
"The public health impact of cigarette smoking is enormous," Novello said. "It is responsible for about 390,000 deaths each year in the United States, or more than one of every six deaths.
"Public opinion polls tell us that most smokers want to quit. This report provides smokers with new and more powerful motivation to give up this self-destructive behavior."
In a letter accompanying the report, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, said, "We must do everything we can to prevent young people from taking up this deadly addiction and we must help smokers quit."
It is estimated that more than 3,000 teen-agers across the nation become regular smokers each day.
Sullivan urged health insurers to provide payment for smoking cessation treatments that are shown to be effective.
The report warned that quitting isn't always easy. Most former smokers go through the process several times before becoming long-term quitters, it said. At least one-third of smokers who stay rTC off cigarettes for one or more years may eventually relapse. But, the report said, relapse becomes less likely as smokers stay off cigarettes for longer periods of time.