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Updated 27 August 2013

Why smoking makes you look old

It's time to quit. Would it help if you knew smoking puts you on a rollercoaster to premature ageing?

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Just can’t quit? Would it help if you knew smoking puts you on a rollercoaster to premature ageing?

The advertisements (in the good old days) were powerful: smoking was an instant ‘in’ to the jet-set lifestyle. You would look cool, you would be desirable, you would be fit and healthy as you snow-skied and sailed yachts.

Of course, the realities of smoking were never screened to a susceptible audience desperate for glamour. The reasons were simple: the truth is there is nothing pretty about smoking. It is the fast track to looking old way before your time.

In 2001 the government banned cigarette advertisements, and since then we have been spared the sight of the young and the beautiful lighting up.

But just what does it do to you?
Well, where does one start? With wrinkles, lines, and sagging of skin tone? Perhaps bad breath, yellow teeth, stained fingers? Or heart and lung disease; or impotence?

And, of course, it kills you. Yussuf Salojee, executive director of the National Council Against Smoking, claims that 12% of early deaths worldwide could be attributed to smoking; and the Cancer Association of South Africa says that every year, over 25 000 South Africans die of tobacco-related illnesses (these figures do not include those who are critically ill from smoking or breathing in second-hand smoke).

Out of 100 people who die from a smoking-related disease in SA:
- 28 die of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- 19 of tuberculosis (TB)
- 13 of lung cancer
- 12 of ischemic heart disease (IHD)
- 10 of cancer of the lip, mouth, pharynx and oesophagus
- 9 of strokes and vascular disease, and
- 9 of other conditions

In your face
One of the obvious effects of smoking is right out there for everyone to see. It ratchets up the wrinkle factor as it sucks away the vital glow of a healthy skin. And there’s more: Thorax, a journal of the British Medical Association (BMA), published research showing that middle-aged smokers who have heavily wrinkled faces are five times likelier to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than smooth-faced puffers.

Smoking is notorious for causing premature ageing of the skin, as well as causing emphysema and bronchitis, which block the airways and restrict the flow of oxygen around the body.

The only positive here is that the findings about the wrinkle factor could provide a fast-track tip for doctors who are diagnosing patients.

“Extensive facial wrinkling may be a marker of susceptibility to the effects of cigarette smoke and should promote the screening of affected individuals for airflow obstruction," said the researchers.

But, if you are already a senior citizen, and have just started to puff should you worry about the effects of smoking? After all there is a time-lag from the start of smoking to the onset of chronic disease associated with the habit.

Definitely, according to the South African Medical Research Council (MRC).

“Many older smokers may live another 10 to 20 years or more, during which the impact may manifest…” says a report by the MRC’s Burden of Disease Research Unit’s executive director, Dr Debbie Bradshaw.

And remember, the longer you have been smoking, the higher disease burden you carry.

What does the damage?
Yes, cigarettes do have filters, but they do not remove enough tar to make the product less dangerous. Plus there are those taste-improving chemicals added to tobacco that up the risk of cancer.

If you still cannot resist the pull of nicotine best you know just what it is you are dragging on:

  • Ammonia: most people prefer to use ammonia for things such as cleaning windows and toilet bowls. By adding ammonia to cigarettes, nicotine in its vapour form can be absorbed through your lungs more quickly. This, in turn, means your brain can get a higher dose of nicotine with each puff.
  • Cadmium: in industrial and consumer products cadmium is used for batteries, pigments, metal coatings, and plastics. Cadmium damages the lungs, can cause kidney disease, and may irritate the digestive tract.
  • Benzene: a naturally occurring substance produced by volcanoes and forest fires and present in many plants and animals. But benzene is also a major industrial chemical made from coal and oil. Benzene is used to make other chemicals, as well as some types of plastics, detergents, and pesticides. It is also a component of gasoline and is linked to leukaemia.
  • Formaldehyde: used as glue in wood products and as a preservative in some paints. It can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, skin rashes, and allergic reactions.
  • Nickel: a hard, silvery-white metal. Causes increased susceptibility to lung infections, chronic bronchitis and reduced lung function.
  • Lead: used in ammunition, roofing, gasoline, paints and ceramic products and caulking. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The most sensitive is the central nervous system, particularly in children. Lead also damages kidneys and the immune system. Exposure to lead is more dangerous for young and unborn children. Harmful effects include premature births, smaller babies, decreased mental ability in the infant, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in young children.
  • Acetone: present in vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, and landfill sites. Breathing moderate-to-high levels of acetone for short periods of time can cause nose, throat, lung, and eye irritation; headaches; light-headedness; confusion; increased pulse rate; effects on blood; nausea; vomiting; unconsciousness and possibly coma; and shortening of the menstrual cycle in women.
  • Pyridine: made from crude coal tar or from other chemicals and is used to dissolve other substances. Headaches, giddiness, a desire to sleep, quickening of the pulse, and rapid breathing have been witnessed in people who have breathed in pyridine.

Many of these chemicals were added to make the smoker better able to tolerate toxic amounts of cigarette smoke. And remember: the bottom line is they were added with the intention of keeping one wanting more.

Desperate to quit, but don’t know where to start?


(Robyn von Geusau, Health24, updated July 2012)

Read more:

Ways to quit smoking

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