It’s been more than 50 years since the Surgeon General first linked smoking to cancer, chronic bronchitis, and heart disease. Since then, the number of Americans who smoke has decreased significantly: from 42% in 1964 to 18% today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco research and education have helped drive this change, says Alex Prokhorov, MD, PhD, director of tobacco education outreach at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. But even with all that’s known about smoking, many myths still exist. Here are seven of the most common myths and the truth behind them.
Myth 1: I’ll gain weight if I quit smoking
This is often the biggest reason people, especially women, are afraid to quit smoking, says Dr. Prokhorov. It’s true that you might gain a few pounds, but not necessarily because you quit smoking. You can’t taste food as well when you smoke. After you quit, your sense of taste rebounds. “Since you’re able to taste food a lot better, you eat a little more,” Dr. Prokhorov says. If you eat a healthy diet and stick to smart food portions after you eat, you can avoid weight gain.
Myth 2: My lungs are already damaged from polluted air, so smoking won’t make them worse
Many people who live in big cities or industrial towns with poor air quality believe this, but it’s not true. “It’s simple math,” Dr. Prokhorov says. “If you inhale cigarette smoke on top of polluted air, it’s double the trouble.”
Myth 3: Smoking once in a while isn’t harmful
Don’t be fooled into thinking that smoking “just” when you’re with friends or on the weekends won’t affect your health. Any tobacco is bad for you. In addition to tobacco, cigarettes contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and ammonia. “You’re still at risk for smoking-related diseases,” Dr. Prokhorov says.
Myth 4: Electronic cigarettes are harmless
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigs, use batteries to heat flavored liquids that produce vapor instead of smoke. Some have nicotine, and some don’t. Unfortunately, not enough is known about them yet to deem them safe, Dr. Prokhorov says.
Myth 5: Smoking relieves my stress
It’s actually the time between cigarettes that’s making you stressed, Dr. Prokhorov says. Nicotine in tobacco is addictive. When you smoke, nicotine reaches your brain quickly, but it also wears off quickly. And when it wears off, you may experience withdrawal symptoms and crave another cigarette. In other words, cigarettes are the reason you feel more stressed in the first place. To lower stress without lighting up, talk to a friend, take some deep breaths, or go on a short walk.
Myth 6: I’m only hurting myself
Secondhand smoke has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and breathing problems in people who don’t smoke. But did you know there’s something known as thirdhand smoke, too? Thirdhand smoke is a residue that lingers on surfaces like floors, furniture, and clothing, even in a well-ventilated room. “Think of toddlers who are crawling and putting their hands in their mouths,” Dr. Prokhorov says. “They get that residue from cigarette smoke.”
Myth 7: People who smoke are happy they smoke
Smoking is a burden on your body and budget, and many smokers are unhappy they do it. “I’ve seen people who have tried to quit and don’t know what to do,” Dr. Prokhorov says. “That tells you about the strength of addiction.” The good news is that you can quit smoking, and there are many good reasons to try. By quitting, you’ll have more energy, breathe easier, and lower your risk for disease.
Ready to Quit?
You don’t have to quit alone. You’ll be more successful if you get support. Ask your doctor for help to quit smoking. You can also go to smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) to take advantage of free resources.