Why aren't there minor illness smoking warnings?
September 8, 2009 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Why didn't someone warn me about the risk of low-level chronic permanent lung damage from smoking cigarettes?

This is more of a health-policy question: I'm sure the warnings are out there, but most of what I come across on cigarette packages and from campaigns like truth are about serious illness. This always made me think that as long as I stopped at some point, I might be OK and the risk of emulating George Harrison (smoking a lot, not smoking for years, then getting fatal lung cancer) was low and in the far future.

Now I have COPD (or adult-onset asthma or chronic bronchitis) which after not smoking for a couple (three?) years and getting more exercise has lessened, but I still keep sugarless Ricolas around to stop coughing jags and I wake up most mornings raspy. I've seen a pulmonologist and I take Advair 2x daily.

My issue is with the stop smoking message, though: I somehow thought if I stopped smoking my lungs would return to pre-smoking health. Maybe they'll be close one day.


My mother's mother smoked Luckys & died of lung cancer. My mother smokes. My sister's smoking again, but when I raised this issue with her, she actually knew about it (and had asthma as a kid before cigs) and knew she should stop.
posted by morganw to Health & Fitness (18 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Congrats on quitting and good luck with the COPD, but "why didn't someone warn me" isn't really a question that askme is well-equipped to answer in this context. -- cortex

So they warn you about serious illnesses and you can't figure out that smoking will cause minor illnesses too?

There are plenty of studies out there that tell you after X years your lung health will be X% of its original (or your disease risk will be X% less than those of current smokers). Nowhere have I heard it implied or flat-out said that your lungs will return to pre-smoking health. The damage has been done.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:38 PM on September 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

There are tons of things that can go wrong as a cause of smoking, more than could fill up the space on a warning on the side of a pack of smokes.
It is your responsibility to educate yourself and take care of your health.
I too am a smoker and I figured out early on, after waking up many mornings hacking away, that there are risks other than just getting cancer.
posted by greta simone at 3:39 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I get the feeling this is going devolve pretty quickly but responsibility lies with you for making healthy choices. No one can advise you of every risk that a given action poses.
posted by dfriedman at 3:40 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Why didn't someone warn me about the risk of low-level chronic permanent lung damage from smoking cigarettes?

They did warn you about that. But you apparently weren't paying attention. I have been bombarded with that information ever since I was just a small kid, and I'm old enough to remember Watergate.
posted by The World Famous at 3:43 PM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Cigarette companies want smokers to think that "smoking is dangerous in the long run, but at some point I can quit and my lungs will go back to normal."
posted by muddgirl at 3:46 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm not a smoker, but count me as someone who believed, until recently, that the harmful effects of smoking decrease after a smoker quits. I think I learned that in DARE, actually.
posted by muddgirl at 3:47 PM on September 8, 2009

Some anti-smoking PSAs I have seen give perhaps an overly optimistic picture of how things will be when you stop smoking. I think they are trying to avoid hopelessness on the part of people who already smoke; they don't want you to think, "Quitting is hard, and my lungs will STILL be bad, so why bother quitting?"
posted by Jeanne at 3:47 PM on September 8, 2009

Not "decrease" - I meant "disappear".
posted by muddgirl at 3:47 PM on September 8, 2009

Could you cite an actual stop smoking message that stated that your lungs would return to pre-smoking health? I can find any number of public health web sites that state quite the opposite. Could the answer perhaps be that you ignored the aspects of the messages that you didn't like, and only heard the ones that worked for you?

E.g. from the American Lung Association:

# About 8.6 million people in the U.S. have at least one serious illness caused by smoking. That means that for every person who dies of a smoking-related disease, there are 20 more people who suffer from at least one serious illness associated with smoking.

# Among current smokers, chronic lung disease accounts for 73 percent of smoking-related conditions. Even among smokers who have quit chronic lung disease accounts for 50 percent of smoking-related conditions.

# The list of diseases caused by smoking includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), coronary heart disease, stroke, abdominal aortic aneurysm, acute myeloid leukemia, cataract, pneumonia, periodontitis, and bladder, esophageal, laryngeal, lung, oral, throat, cervical, kidney, stomach, and pancreatic cancers. Smoking is also a major factor in a variety of other conditions and disorders, including slowed healing of wounds, infertility, and peptic ulcer disease.

posted by gingerbeer at 3:49 PM on September 8, 2009

While I find it hard to believe that nobody warned you about this, it's most likely because chronic bronchitis is not nearly as scary as death, and campaigns designed to get people to quit smoking are going to focus on the scarier one. Cigarette packages, on the other hand, are only going to do what they're required to do, and they're not required to warn you about asthma.
posted by katillathehun at 3:50 PM on September 8, 2009

I'd say that if people won't stop smoking due to being warned of the MAJOR illnesses, why would they respond to warnings of minor illnesses?

My dad quit smoking when I was in high school. He said he didn't need warnings to know it wasn't great for him. My mom continues to smoke. go figure.

I think the problem is that it's pretty typical these days for people to believe that there's always a second chance, so as long as you quit smoking *eventually*, you'll be ok in the end.

For what it's worth, I too have heard of the adage if you quit smoking, your lungs will regenerate somewhat, if not fully. However, I've always considered it more of a "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" sorta thing.
posted by johnstein at 3:50 PM on September 8, 2009

Smoking is a health disaster of a magnitude that could never be summarized in a little warning box on a label. Perhaps too late for a full warning for you morganw, but maybe you can pass it on to young people who may be tempted. The American Council on Science and Health decided to make this website that details the myriad of health issues related to smoking.
posted by netbros at 3:51 PM on September 8, 2009

Yeah, some people are pretty mean here on Ask MeFi, you might not want to leave yourself quite that wide open.

I've also noticed lately that smoking education tends to be weighted heavily toward OMG CANCER, probably because a lot of it is aimed at scaring teenagers. That's my guess, anyway. It would be great if more people knew about the many other much more likely outcomes. Tell your friends!

Also good job quitting. At least you aren't making the damage worse.
posted by molybdenumblue at 3:52 PM on September 8, 2009

Sorry to pile on, but I've never heard of anyone not knowing that damage from smoking would harm them in many minor ways, forever.

(Like what, your teeth will un-rot?)
posted by rokusan at 3:53 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Anti-smoking materials frequently contain quite specific mentions of COPD. I'm so sorry to hear you have this terribly debilitating illness, and my best wishes to you for stable health and a long life.

I also want to take a second to honor Pam Laffin, who devoted a tremendous amount of energy in the last years of her life to educating people about the risks of smoking-related asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:54 PM on September 8, 2009

Congratulations on quitting.

I grew up in New Zealand, and I clearly recall being warned about asthma and emphysema at school, starting in the late 1970s.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:55 PM on September 8, 2009

As others have pointed out, smoking is related to literally dozens of conditions, both minor and major, and this has been public knowledge for several decades. The fact that not every condition is listed on the side of a cigarette packet doesn't mean that the information hasn't been widely available to you throughout your smoking life.
posted by scody at 3:56 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you think there are ways in which you've been let down by the systems set up to warn people about the dangers of smoking, then your perspective puts you in a great position to help fill that niche.
posted by hermitosis at 3:56 PM on September 8, 2009

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