A nation clinging to nicotine

November 12, 2012 / Herald Tribune / by Jane Brody — Few smokers would claim that it’s easy to quit. The addiction to nicotine is strong and repeatedly reinforced by circumstances that prompt smokers to light up.

Yet the millions who have successfully quit are proof that a smoke-free life is achievable, even by those who have been regular, even heavy, smokers for decades.

Today, 19 percent of U.S. adults smoke, down from more than 42 percent half a century ago, when Luther Terry, the U.S. surgeon general, formed a committee to produce the first official report on the health effects of smoking. Ever-increasing restrictions on where people can smoke have helped to swell the ranks of former smokers.

Now, however, as we approach the American Cancer Society’s 37th Great American Smokeout on Thursday, the decline in adult smoking has stalled despite the economic downturn and the soaring price of cigarettes.

Currently, 45 million Americans are regular smokers who, if they remain smokers, can on average expect to live 10 fewer years. Half will die of a tobacco-related disease, and many others will suffer for years with smoking-caused illness. Smoking adds $96 billion to the annual cost of medical care in this country, Dr. Nancy A. Rigotti wrote in The Journal of the American Medical Association last month. Even as some adult smokers quit, their ranks are being swelled by the 800,000 teenagers who become regular smokers each year and by young adults who, through advertising and giveaways, are now the prime targets of the tobacco industry.

People ages 18 to 25 now have the nation’s highest smoking rate: 40 percent. I had to hold my breath the other day as dozens of 20-somethings streamed out of art gallery openings and lighted up. Do they not know how easy it is to get hooked on nicotine and how challenging it can be to escape this addiction? Challenging, yes, but by no means impossible. On the Web you can download a “Guide to Quitting Smoking,” with detailed descriptions of all the tools and tips to help you become an ex-smoker once and for all.