Is Smoking Dragging You Down?

10 reasons to quit smoking beyond the big health threats.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 01, 2012
8 min read

If you smoke, you've likely heard the pleas from friends and family to quit. You probably know that smoking makes heart disease, stroke, cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other killers more likely. You might even know that smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the U.S. and worldwide.

But knowing about long-term risks may not be enough to nudge you to quit, especially if you're young. It can be hard to feel truly frightened by illnesses that may strike decades later. And quitting smoking is hard. As many as 75%-80% of smokers say they'd like to quit. But it takes the average smoker five to 10 attempts before successfully quitting.

For some smokers, it's the little things that motivate quitting. Things like the smell it leaves on your clothes, the way people react when they find out you're a smoker, the stains it leaves on your teeth -- everyday aggravations that can add up to a tipping point to kick the habit.

Here are 10 common daily side effects of smoking that often create the incentive to quit.

There's no mistaking the smell of cigarette smoke, and it's not one many people describe favorably.

Steven Schroeder, MD, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California at San Francisco, says that smokers are commonly self-conscious about the smell of smoke on their clothes and in their hair. And the smell of their breath is one of particular sensitivity to most smokers.

"Some of the media campaigns have compared kissing a smoker to licking an ashtray," Schroeder says. Enough said.

Smelling like an ashtray isn't the only impact smoking has on the nose. Smokers also experience a dulling of their senses; smell and taste in particular take a hit when you smoke.

Smokers can't appreciate the taste of many foods as intensely as they did before smoking, but it's really the loss of the sense of smell that diminishes the ability to taste, notes Andrew Spielman, DMD, PhD, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of basic science and craniofacial biology at the NYU School of Dentistry. Breathing in the hot fumes of cigarette smoke is toxic to the senses.

Some smokers realize that foods don't taste the way they used to, but the process can be quite gradual, making it difficult to detect. Quitting brings a swift return of the senses.

"I can't tell you how many smokers who have successfully quit come back to the clinic and say eating is a totally different experience," says Michael Fiore, MD, MPH, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention. "The pleasure of eating is dramatically enhanced when smokers quit. And it happens within a few days but can continue for up to three to six months."

"One of the chief and significant causes of premature aging of the face is smoking," Fiore says. Skin changes, like leathery skin and deep wrinkling, are more likely in people who are regular smokers. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, smoking leads to biochemical changes in the body that speed the aging process. For example, smoking deprives the living skin tissue of oxygen by causing constriction of the blood vessels. As a result, blood doesn't get to your organs as easily, and that includes the skin.

Another classic smoker giveaway is tar staining of the hands and skin from holding cigarettes. "Burning cigarette smoke is most apparent around the face and I think that what we sometimes see is staining of the skin from the tars and other deadly toxins in tobacco smoke," Fiore says.

Fiore also points out that the muscle actions required to inhale lead to the classic smoker's wrinkles around the mouth.

Schroeder cites a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2008, which looked at the dynamics of smoking in large social networks as a part of the Framingham Heart Study. The study, which took place during the period between 1971 and 2003, examined smoking behavior and the extent to which groups of widely connected people have an affect on quitting. One of the findings was that smokers have increasingly moved to the fringes of social networks. "Smokers have become marginalized," Schroeder says.

Joyce Wilde, a small business owner and former smoker in Pittsburgh, remembers feeling marginalized when she smoked heavily. "Smoking really messed with my self-concept," Wilde tells WebMD. "I usually hid somewhere and smoked so no one would see me. The experience of smoking embarrassed me and I felt weakened by it, both physically and emotionally."

The reasons for the increasing unpopularity of smoking and diminished social standing of those who continue to light up likely has roots in our increased understanding of the health implications of smoking, not just for the smoker, but for those breathing in secondhand smoke as well.

"The reason for [clean indoor air] ordinances is to protect the healthy nonsmoker from the known danger of toxins of secondhand smoke," Fiore says. "It's not just the inconvenience of it makes my clothes smell bad when I go to get a drink, it's that risk from the carcinogens and side stream smoke, some of which are at higher concentrations than direct smoke."

Anyone who has perused the dating advertisements in papers, magazines or online, has seen more than their fair share of the phrase, "No smokers, please."

Long after quitting smoking on a daily basis, Wilde found herself once again reaching for cigarettes during the stressful time of her divorce. She was a decade older than when she last smoked and at the time, living in Southern California where she felt the competition in the singles market was stiff. Smoking, she says, only added to the challenge of finding a new mate after her marriage ended.

"After I crossed 40, the dating scene became harder because my peers were looking at people much younger, so if you add smoking into that, it's even harder," Wilde says.

That's not surprising to Fiore. "There is a general sense that I'd rather be with someone who did not smell like a dirty ashtray," he says.

If smoking generally adds a hurdle to finding a new partner, impotence sure doesn't help. Yet smoking increases the chances of impotence dramatically for men by affecting blood vessels, including those that must dilate in order for an erection to occur.

"It's been said in the scientific literature that one of the most powerful messages to teenage boys is that not only does it make you smell like an ashtray and no one wants to kiss a smoker, but it can cause impotence or impact your erections. It's a message that is frequently used to motivate adolescent boys to step away from cigarettes," Fiore says.

You may know about the long-term health risks associated with smoking, but did you realize that smoking also makes you more susceptible to seasonal flus and colds? "People don't realize how much more frequently smokers get viral, bacterial and other infections," Fiore says.

Tiny hairs called cilia that line the respiratory tract, including the trachea and bronchial tubes, are designed to protect us from infection. "Cilia are constantly waving in a way that grabs bacteria and viruses that get into the trachea and pushes them up and out so we cough them out and swallow them and destroy them with our stomach acids," Fiore explains.

One of the toxic effects of cigarette smoke is that it paralyzes the cilia, thereby destroying this core protective mechanism. That's why smokers have so many more infections. Within a month of quitting, however, your cilia start performing their protective role once again.

Secondhand smoke is estimated to cause 50,000 deaths every year. It's no wonder: More than 4,500 separate chemicals are found in a puff of tobacco smoke, and more than 40 of those are known carcinogens.

"It takes very little secondhand smoke to trigger a heart attack or stroke in someone who is predisposed to that condition," Schroeder says. The ingredients in smoke cause platelets, the material in our blood that helps it clot, become sticky. This increases the risk of heart attacks.

"There have been a number of studies to show that when a community goes smoke-free the proportion of heart attacks seen at the hospitals goes down by 20% or 30%," Schroeder says.

Many smokers report a diminished ability over time to comfortably do things as simple as climbing a set of stairs or enjoying sports activities they once easily took part in such as volleyball or jogging.

According to Schroeder, even young athletes in otherwise top physical condition don't perform as well if they smoke because over time, smoking causes the lungs and heart to work harder.

If you're a smoker, it's no surprise that smoking is downright expensive. The price of a pack of cigarettes varies greatly by location, but Fiore says the average cost is about $5 per pack, and in some states it can be as high as $10 per pack, including federal and state taxes.

"Who today has [that kind of money] that they can put aside this way?" Fiore asks. "If you're in a place where it costs $7 for a pack [of cigarettes], you're approaching $3,000 a year. That's putting aside the fact that the average smoker has three extra sick days a year, is 8% less productive, and has $1,600 in extra health care costs per year," he says. "The annual economic costs [of smoking] are over $200 billion nationally."

And of course, those figures don't capture the toll smoking takes in the long run.

"It's important to think of this not as a bad habit to put aside but as a chronic disease that for almost all smokers needs to be addressed their whole lives," Fiore says. And there's no better time to start that process than now.