Are There Safe Alternatives to Tobacco Smoking?
If you have COPD, or are at risk for it, and you still enjoy smoking, you might be looking for a safer way to continue that habit other than traditional cigarettes. So let's take a look at some possible alternatives and whether they truly make sense from a health standpoint.
First, I will admit that I have never been a smoker, but I did grow up in a household with 4 adult smokers and both of my siblings have smoked at different points in their lives. I also have a number of other relatives who are or were smokers. And, as a home health nurse for many years, I have interacted with a number of smokers.
So, while I may not have personal experience with being a smoker myself, I am certainly aware of this addiction and the impact it has on the lives of both the smokers and those around them.
Why people smoke
Tobacco smoking is an addiction. In fact, it is often described as a more powerful addiction even than heroin. Part of the reason is because tobacco addiction comprises both a physical dependency, as well as a psychological one. So the reasons why people smoke can be varied and diverse.
Nicotine, a toxic liquid that is the chief component of tobacco, is what smokers develop a physical dependency to. Nicotine is both a sedative and a stimulant. While it may seem to have some positive short-term effects, the long-term side effects can be devastating. Withdrawal symptoms can be acute and painful, and include:
But it is probably the psychological dependence that is most difficult to deal with. Smoking becomes part of a person's everyday lifestyle. People routinely smoke after meals, after sex, on their breaks at work, with their morning coffee and when out drinking and/or socializing.
Both of my parents died of COPD. My father never stopped smoking until his final hospitalization. My mother quit for extended periods a couple of times, but ultimately resumed smoking and continued until she was placed on continuous supplemental oxygen. However, she told me years after quitting that she still missed it every single day! It was part of what she considered a good quality of life.
So, if you are experiencing this type of dependence on tobacco and/or the smoking habit, you could wonder if one of these might be right for you:
- Natural cigarettes
- Menthol cigarettes
- e-Cigarettes (vaping)
You might think that cigarettes labeled as "natural," "organic" or "additive-free" are healthier. It's not unusual to believe that the danger in smoking comes from chemicals that companies add to the tobacco, but this is wrong thinking.
In fact, all burning cigarettes are equally harmful and can expose the smoker to more than 700 chemicals, many of which are potentially cancer-causing. And, as I described above, it is the nicotine in tobacco smoke that is the main culprit in dependency and lung damage.
I remember seeing advertisements as a child that portrayed menthol cigarette smoking as "cool and refreshing." My father believed this type of cigarette was a lighter form of cigarette.
In reality, there is no evidence that menthol cigarettes are any safer, although there is also no proof that they are more harmful, per se. However, they have been found to be more addictive than their nonmenthol counterparts.
In 2013, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) called attention to the fact that menthol cigarettes were one of the few areas in the tobacco industry that were growing. This is most likely because it is easier to start smoking them and harder to quit. The FDA called for more research into the effects of smoking menthol containing cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes or vaping, are a relatively new alternative to tobacco smoking. Companies that make them will tell you they are safe because you're only inhaling water vapor, not smoke. What they may fail to mention is that most e-cigs still contain nicotine. The vapor may also contain other toxic chemicals and carcinogens.
Unfortunately, we lack thorough research into either the benefits or the harm from vaping. There have been a few smaller studies, but results are not strongly conclusive either way. More research is definitely needed.
What we do know is that e-cigarettes may make it easier to quit smoking regular cigarettes. But, and this is a big but, we also know that inhaling anything other than pure air into already inflamed airways when you have COPD is not going to be healthy for you.
Tools for quitting
Quitting smoking is one of the best things a person who has COPD can do for their health and to stop the damage to their airways. But quitting is hard and people often don't quit for good. So, we need to offer tools for quitting that are not just as harmful as the original habit. Talk with your doctor about safer -- temporary -- alternatives such as nicotine gum or patches or medications like Chantix. There are also programs available to help you quit cold turkey, which is probably the safest alternative of all.
How has your experience been navigating the healthcare system as someone with COPD?