TOPICS > Health

Surgeon General: Smoking Even Once Poses Health Risks

December 9, 2010 at 5:55 PM EDT
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Surgeon General Regina Benjamin speaks with Judy Woodruff about a new study on how even just one puff of one cigarette causes immediate harm to a person's lungs and lead to bigger health problems down the road.

JIM LEHRER: Now: The government warns of health dangers from even small amounts of cigarette smoke. Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Smoking rates in America have dropped dramatically over the past four decades. But, despite repeated warnings about its deadly risks since a landmark report was issued in 1964, 40 million Americans still smoke, many casually or occasionally.

That included the president, until recently. His spokesman said today that he had not seen Mr. Obama light up in at least nine months.

Well, a new report issued by the surgeon general had a warning for the president and others about smoking even one cigarette.

Doctor Regina Benjamin is the surgeon general, and she joins us now.

Thank you very much for coming out and talking with us.

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN, U.S. Surgeon General: Great. Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we have known for decades, since that report in 1964, smoking is harmful. What new does this report — what new information do we learn from this report?

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: Yes, this report is the 30th surgeon general’s report on tobacco.

And the previous reports have talked about what diseases and what illnesses are caused by tobacco. This particular report talks about how these things happen, how the diseases — or what they are caused by, how they are developed, how they affect you.

The fact that you inhale or are exposed to the single tobacco smoke can affect you immediately. It immediately affects your blood cells. It affects your blood vessels. And it is very harmful, the first breath you take of any — inhaling any smoke.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, those chemical changes in your body from the nicotine, the harmful substance…

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: There are 7,000 chemicals or chemical compounds in the tobacco smoke. And when you inhale those chemical compounds, they attack your — the lining of your blood vessels. It makes your blood thicker and easier to clot.

And if a clot happens in the brain, it’s a stroke. If it happens in your heart, it’s a heart attack. And those things can be immediate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this notion of light exposure, which is what we’re talking about — you were essentially saying today one puff — that’s not really the main concern, is it? I mean, isn’t the main concern getting people who are heavy smokers to stop?

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: Well, the — no, any smoker. It doesn’t matter if you are a smoker or if you just happen to be passing by, and it’s secondhand smoke.

It can have the same effect. It affects your blood vessels. It affects your — every cell in your body. It affects the DNA. And so we now know that it really damages every cell, and so, anyone. And there is no safe level of tobacco smoke.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are saying this really wasn’t understood before?

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: We didn’t understand how it worked. We also didn’t understand how the addiction to tobacco smoke occurred.

We now know that, because of these 7,000 chemicals, that nicotine is the most dangerous of all, and the most addicting. However, there are other things. There are things like the way it’s packaged, the additives — additives, particularly things ammonia. You add ammonia to the cigarette, the nicotine then becomes what we call free nicotine, and it can cross the blood-brain barrier much faster.

It gets to your brain much, much faster. And we didn’t know that before. And so we’re — the new tobaccos, the newer cigarettes and this tobacco smoke gets to your brain much faster, making it more addictive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk a little bit about what can be done about this.

There are already, I guess, just last month new labels on cigarette packages with dire warnings. I think they call them death labels. We have — we are showing one here on the screen.

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: Yes. That’s one of the proposals that the FDA is looking at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To make these even more…

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: To make less attractive, because many of the things now are being attractive, making people want to purchase them.

These labelings, we know from scientific studies that they seem, the warnings seem to cause people to not want to buy them, particularly young people, who is the audience we’re really after, young people starting to smoke.

There are a number of things we know that work. We know that when we increase the cost of cigarettes, that the use goes down. We know that when we put on media campaigns and educational campaigns, that people start to understand, and they smoke less. And we know that, when we put in smoke-free policies, that those tend to work.

Particularly, California, for example, has had the lowest running smoke-free policy. And if you look at California, their rate of heart disease is less by four times any other state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I mean, is it your thinking and the thinking of others that you can make these labels even scarier and more ugly?

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: Make them less attractive, particularly to teenagers and adolescents, and make them think about it.

We know that the warnings being there, when you pick it up, you think twice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was seeing that, up until the last couple of years, smoking among young people was declining. It’s now leveled off. Do you have an understanding of why that is?

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: Since 2003, smoking has — has leveled off with adults and adolescents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stopped declining?

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: And stopped declining. It just leveled off. We have one in five adult smoke and one in five adolescents smoke.

We do know that adolescents are much more likely to become addicted to tobacco smoke, and their bodies are much more easily addicted than adults. And that may explain why, every day, almost 1,000 adolescents will start to smoke daily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what do you believe should be done, can be done to address this? You mentioned the cost, which suggests taxes.



DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: The first thing I say is, talk to your doctor, because we know that people who smoke, 70 percent of them say they want to stop.

And when they talk to their doctor, we find that about 66 percent chance, better chance to stop smoking if they talk to their clinicians. So, that’s the first thing.

The other things I would say is, we have newer tools to help you now. We have medications, prescription medicines to help. We have counseling and different ways of counseling. We also have nicotine patches and things that are helping with cessation.

We have a 1-800 quit line that people can call to help to stop smoking. We can do a number of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is fascinating information that you have brought to us. And we appreciate it. Dr. Regina Benjamin, the United States surgeon general…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … thank you.