[COLUMN] Slow suicide

SMOKING kills. It is that plain and simple. There is no more doubt today that tobacco (cigarette smoking) is the predominant cause of lung cancer, besides other malignancies and cardiovascular diseases that maim, kill men and women, and hurt our society, especially our children. In the United States alone, almost half a million die each year from smoking-related illnesses. These are preventable deaths!

Demographic studies have shown that smokers are about 10 times more prone to die premature deaths than non-smokers. This unnecessary loss of lives is at an immense direct cost for non-smokers in terms of increased health risks from passive smoking, in higher health insurance premiums and taxes, not to mention personal and family tragedies in all shapes and forms.

As we have alluded to in a past column, secondhand smoke is even more dangerous. Innocent bystanders are forced to inhale cigarette smoke at their workplaces or in public places, thus increasing their health risk. The Environmental Protection Agency engineers have shown that even the best available ventilation and air-moving equipment were unable to reduce carcinogenic (cancer-causing) air contamination to a safe level for a non-smoker sharing workspace with a habitual smoker. Physical isolation of the tobacco addict is most essential as shown by these scientific studies.

Tobacco use leads to four times as many excess deaths annually compared to all other drugs and alcohol abuse combined, ten times more than all automobile fatalities per year, twelve times more than deaths from AIDS, and much more than all the American military casualties (in all wars) in this century put together. That’s how dangerous and damaging tobacco is to the human body, and to society as a whole.

Lung cancer then

At the beginning of the past century, lung cancer was almost an insignificant health problem for the world. It became a minor problem in the 1930s (death rate of 5 per 10,000). Today, it has become the main killer among men and women.

Since women started “really” smoking in the 1950s “because it was glamorized in ads by actresses and models as a sophisticated and fashionable habit,” lung cancer in females has increased at least six-fold, an alarming rate, with the death rate comparable to that in males. Women also have added risks: osteoporosis, thrombophlebitis (vein inflammation and blood clot formation), arthritis, infertility, cervical cancer, and menstrual irregularities. Pregnant smokers face miscarriages, stillbirths, low-birth weight and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) babies. Almost 30,000 female lives are snuffed out every year as a result of smoking. Of the 8 million cigarette-related deaths in the world each year, about 1.2 million are due to secondhand smoke and about half are women. It is now the top killer among women. Today, one woman dies from cigarette-related illness every three minutes! Indeed, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” (as a cigarette ad once proudly proclaimed).

In Marlboro country tombstones abound, or in Salem it is a Lucky Strike if a smoker does not develop lung cancer or deadly cardiovascular diseases. Millions of smokers afflicted with blockages in their leg arteries couldn’t walk even for less than a mile for a Camel, and Philip Morris, Virginia Slims, and Benson and Hedges have all conceded now that tobacco, including Low Tar and Milk Seven, are addicting and hazardous to health. Smoking is indeed not Kool at all, and even Lord Chesterfield, the Viceroy, and Winston in the Parliament, Kent (can’t) argue with the fact that smoking is self-abuse, a subtle form of suicide. There is a real Advantage in kicking the habit even before it starts. I Hope the future generation will be smarter than ours.

But what is puzzling and bothersome to me is the great dichotomy with which our society (and most especially the government!) deals with the cigarette-health risk issue. On one hand, they are most vocal and vigilant against the so-called illegal drugs and other substances that pose a moderate public health dilemma, promulgating most aggressive laws and heavy criminal sanctions against their production, distribution and use. On the other hand, society and the government have long subsidized with tax monies the production and distribution of tobacco, which is by far the country’s most serious and deadly substance. Yes, our government and society are peddling drugs, not the moderately dangerous ones but the deadliest one, tobacco. The one that makes lives miserable. The one that kills the breadwinner or the mother in the family, victimizing the children and their future. The one that separates loved ones. The one that destroys hopes and dreams.

When I immigrated to the United States, I thought economics was the reason why the government was quite tolerant of the tobacco industry, from whom it was getting so much revenues in taxes, etc. making it acceptable and even essential for its survival. I later learned that the amount of money the government gets from the tobacco industry is nowhere near the billions of dollars it spends yearly in research, hospitalization/disability/work loss and treatment of cigarette-related diseases. So, it is not economics. With the cigarette industry’s mighty lobbying dollars, the majority of our legislators are obviously scared to stop and eradicate the killing fields. It seems money blinds many of them.

But the tide appears to be changing, at least in the United States. The courts in North America have eventually scratched the surface in bringing about some justice, albeit delayed, in the tobacco death arena. Dying or dead smokers have successfully won handsome awards from some giant tobacco companies, who, finally, after more than seven decades, have officially admitted that tobacco is an addictive drug, carcinogenic, and can kill in more ways than one, and that they had known this fact for decades but had lied about it.

Having said that, I strongly feel that people who wish to smoke (or to jump off a cliff or off a tall building to hurt or kill themselves) have the right to do it. That is their constitutional right, and while I am against tobacco as an individual and as a cardiac surgeon, I shall defend the right of the cigarette addicts to smoke in places where smoking is not prohibited by law. The only exception/limitation to that right, or any other right under our Constitution, is when its exercise adversely affects or conflicts with, harms, or curtails, the rights of others. The smoker has the right to smoke and enjoy it, but he does not have the right to force or expose his loved ones, his friends, or strangers, to the more dangerous and more carcinogenic fumes coming from his cigarettes. This is where the line has to be drawn morally, socially, and legally.

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The main objective of this column is to educate and inspire people live a healthier lifestyle to prevent illnesses and disabilities and achieve a happier and more productive life. Any diagnosis, recommendation or treatment in our article are general medical information and not intended to be applicable or appropriate for anyone. This column is not a substitute for your physician, who knows your condition well and who is your best ally when it comes to your health.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, a Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus based in Northwest Indiana and Las Vegas, Nevada, is an international medical lecturer/author, Health Advocate, newspaper columnist, and Chairman of the Filipino United Network-USA, a 501(c)3 humanitarian foundation in the United States. He was a recipient of the Indiana Sagamore of the Wabash Award in 1995, conferred by then Indiana Governor, later Senator, and then presidential candidate, Evan Bayh. Other Sagamore past awardees include President Harry Truman, President George HW Bush, Muhammad Ali, Astronaut Gus Grissom and other leaders and educators (Wikipedia). Websites: FUN8888.com, Today.SPSAtoday.com, and philipSchua.com; Email: [email protected].


Dr. Philip S. Chua

Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus in Northwest Indiana and chairman of cardiac surgery from 1997 to 2010 at Cebu Doctors University Hospital, where he holds the title of Physician Emeritus in Surgery, is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. He is the chairman of the Filipino United Network – USA, a 501(c)(3) humanitarian foundation in the United States.

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