Tobacco: The Greatest World Health Burden


We tend to underestimate and undervalue the discussion in addiction treatment about tobacco. Tobacco addiction is not dynamic, chaotic, or volatile – unlike all of the other addictions. It’s a legal addiction and not associated with significant criminal components. This has not markedly changed. It is not the subject of active media publications, such as that of the opioid epidemic or controversial cannabis legislation. Tobacco from an attention point of view is quite boring.

Perceived Low Consequence

Tobacco use is also quite silent. The number of people who seek residential or outpatient treatment for tobacco use disorders pales in comparison to other addictions. This may be due to multiple factors. One is the lack of the legal or career ramifications discussed above. Another is the rarity of it splitting apart families or loved ones (although the rift caused by tobacco in a family may be more pronounced than we might guess). There is also at significant delay in severe health consequences. You can always quit tomorrow, right?

The Most Preventable Deaths

A comprehensive 2008 report from the World Health Organization lists shocking facts describing the magnitude of the tobacco health burden. Tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death across the entire planet. It will ultimately be connected to the deaths of about 50% of smokers. On average tobacco use shortens someone’s lifespan by about 15 years. It is significantly linked to 6 of the 8 leading causes of death across the world:

  • Heart Attack
  • Stroke
  • Respiratory Infections
  • Emphysema (COPD)
  • Tuberculosis
  • Lung Cancer

Tobacco use in the past 2 years (even once) will instantly decrease you from receiving the highest rating when applying to life insurance. This simple fact speaks so greatly about the consequences of tobacco use. The insurance companies use sophisticated mathematical algorithms to put a price tag on you – they know what they’re doing. If they downgrade you in terms of insurability simply based on any tobacco use at all over 2 years, they likely have done their math. You should too!

Ambivalence, Just as with Other Addictions

It is rare to sit down with a person and discuss tobacco use without the inherent ambivalence shining through. People will almost always describe how they wish they could quit, how they need to quit, how they’re preparing to quit, and how they’re loved ones strongly push them to quit. Despite all of that pressure, the tobacco use continues on.

Just as with other addictions, we use a motivational approach to tobacco use, emphasizing that change talk must come from you. In helping to acknowledge someone feeling conflicted, it is possible to encourage more and more change talk coming from that person. By only emphasizing the consequences of tobacco use, physicians or counselors are not able to achieve the best overall quit results. Interestingly, though, by saying to people “You should quit tobacco!” physicians will actually double the chances of that person quitting within the year. Being straight-forward does have some utility.

Building a Better Plan

How can we strengthen someone’s recovery efforts? In many ways, we use some of the same treatment strategies to target tobacco addiction as we use for other chemical dependency issues. These include:

  • Motivational Emphasis
  • Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)
  • Accountability
  • Coping Skills
  • Longitudinal Support
Healing is Possible

If you are reading this article, it means you have some willingness to engage in a dialogue about quitting tobacco. This dialogue is key, just as with other addictions like alcoholism or opioid addiction. By understanding the science and building a fundamentally sound strategy, you’ll find good success in this process.

In connecting to the above data, if you can stay quit from tobacco for 10 years, you return to baseline health ratings for all of the above conditions! It is possible to completely heal from tobacco addiction and not continue experiencing a multitude of health problems connected to tobacco. Let’s get to work – a work that will save your life.

A Tobacco-Free Recovery

Our residential treatment program at the University of Colorado Hospital is a smoke-free campus. We offer people nicotine replacement products to help alleviate nicotine withdrawal. Of people who quit tobacco at the same time as alcohol or drug addiction, those people consistently strengthen their overall recovery rates.

This is in contrast to what many people believe that you should only quit one thing at a time to prevent it from becoming too overwhelming. The clinical data supports just the opposite: people who attempt recovery from alcohol while maintaining their tobacco addiction are markedly more likely to relapse on alcohol.

Recovery is ultimately all about health. As a comprehensive treatment center, we see people through the University of Colorado Hospital passing away from lung cancer and heart disease constantly. Our efforts to help you recover will include goals of tobacco cessation, effectively extending your lifespan more than anything else you can do for yourself.

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Sociology and Public Health.