Tobacco use: Why do it?

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katherine Windish
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
When weighing the pros and cons of tobacco use, the list of cons seems like it would be enough to scare anyone away, and yet, 27 percent of the Air Force still uses tobacco. Why?

Many people didn't plan to become tobacco users. Many followed the old cliché, "I only smoke when I drink." Some use tobacco for weight loss, others for stress management. No matter the reasons, nicotine doesn't care if you meant to be a user or not - it's still addictive. Just four cigarettes can give a person a 90 percent chance of becoming addicted, according to, a site recommended by the Bolling Health and Wellness Center.

"Nicotine reaches the brain within 10 seconds of taking a puff and it tells the brain you want more," according to the same Website. It creates a similar reaction to what is seen when using cocaine or heroin and the nicotine is actually more addictive than heroin. The 'casual user' starts craving cigarettes, smoking without thinking about it, rationalizing or justifying their smoking, choosing friends, jobs, or activities that allow them to smoke and avoiding those that do not. They continue to use despite good reasons for quitting.

Psychological habits are then formed along with the physical habit - the user becomes accustomed to the feel of inhaling and exhaling the smoke, having something to do with their hands and mouth, as stated by

"I have had former alcoholics and drug addicts come to my classes and tell me it was harder to quit smoking than it was to quit drinking or using drugs," said Nancy Leggett, chief of the health promotion flight at the HAWC.

Also according to, other types of tobacco like cigars, spit tobacco and hookah are even more addictive than cigarettes. Cigars contain anywhere from 100 to 444 milligrams of nicotine compared to 8.4 milligrams in the average cigarette. Spit tobacco contains three to four times more nicotine than cigarettes. While hookah contains a slightly lower amount of nicotine, the deeper inhalations allow more of it to enter the smoker's body.

This addiction causes a number of health problems by negatively affecting the heart, lungs, eyes, nose, throat, mouth, skin, male and female reproductive systems, breasts, bones, blood and digestive system and is a known contributing factor to several types of cancer.

"In a study done recently, it was found that if all the tobacco users in the Air Force with health problems were put onto one installation, that installation would have to shut down within the year," said Ms. Leggett. "This shows how negative effects on the member's health can also severely impact the mission and why military members above all should refrain from tobacco use."

According to Ms. Leggett, tobacco use causes increased susceptibility to chronic bronchitis, influenza, colds, other respiratory infections and many types of cancer. These kinds of sickness take personnel away from their jobs and detrimentally affect the mission, she continued.

Smoking not only negatively affects the user's health but also the health of those around them. Just 30 minutes of exposure to second hand smoke can cause heart damage similar to that of an everyday smoker, according to It is also the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

In addition to the adverse health effects, tobacco use can put a major dent in the tobacco user's wallet.

"If an Airman took the five dollars a day that he or she would normally spend on a pack of cigarettes, and consistently put it into a thrift savings plan, he or she could earn an estimated $88,961 in the twentieth year," said Stewart Kaplan, Pentagon Airman and Family Readiness Center.

One of the tools used by the health promotion flight in the HAWC is a "cost of smoking calculator," which measures the amount of money a tobacco user would spend on cigarettes after different increments of time, depending on how many packs of cigarettes are smoked per day.

For instance, Ms. Leggett had a technical sergeant, the sergeant's husband and mother-in-law come into one of the HAWC's tobacco cessation classes. Each one smokes one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes per day. If they had continued as they were for another 20 years, the four-and-a-half packs of cigarettes per day would have cost them a total of $147,825 over 20 years.

However, they were able to quit and so can any tobacco user who applies him or herself.

"Any time you want to make any change in your life, you need to identify and set up a plan to rid yourself of the barriers that keep you from making the change," said Ms. Leggett.

People have many reasons for not wanting to quit, she said. Sometimes tobacco cessation causes people to gain weight or have mood swings.

"I've had people come into my class saying their family members or co-workers had bought them cigarettes because they couldn't take the moodiness anymore," said Ms. Leggett.

These side-effects stabilize after about three months, but if they are too bothersome in the meantime, there are several ways to combat them, according to Ms. Leggett. There are medications that can be prescribed by your health care provider that can be taken to both help with cigarette cravings and keep your mood stable when you are enrolled in a behavior modification program. Weight gain can be fixed with good old-fashioned healthy living.

"Don't trade in cigarettes for chocolate chip cookies in the beginning," said Ms. Leggett. "Low calorie intakes are better - water, carrots or gum are great ways to satisfy cravings and the need for the hand-to-mouth motion that many tobacco users miss after they quit."

There are many factors involved in tobacco cessation, dependent on the person who is quitting.

"People who use tobacco need to look at multiple ways to quit, not one thing will work for everyone," said Ms. Leggett. "Use whatever works for you."

The HAWC provides classes by appointment to help tobacco users find the way that is right for them. Advice is given for each person's special needs based on what side effects they are experiencing and what their road blocks are.

The HAWC uses nicotine reduction therapy and behavior modification programs. They also introduce tobacco users to Websites that offer games, competitions and live chat programs to give quitters more options.

A piece of advice that Ms. Leggett gives to all prospective tobacco quitters that come to her is to involve the people around you in what you're doing.

"Tell your family members and co-workers what you're doing so they can help you," she said. "These people play a big role in the quitting process. Quitters are always one cigarette away from smoking again and encouragement from the people they care about is a huge motivating factor."

The HAWC classes and Ms. Leggett's briefings at the First Term Airmen Center, paired with rising tobacco prices and increased awareness about the negative effects of tobacco use have brought the tobacco use percentage on Bolling down to 11 percent. The rate is 16 percentage points lower than the Air Force as a whole and meets the "Healthy People 2010" goal for tobacco use in the military.
"We met that goal," said Ms. Leggett. "Now we need to work hard to surpass it."

For more information about the HAWC tobacco cessation classes or to make an appointment, contact the HAWC at (202) 404-1563.