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Retiree Quits Smoking After Nearly 50 Years

By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Nov. 16, 2005 – Tom Sammons picked up his first cigarette when he was 14 years old. Young and swayed by peer pressure, he had no idea at the time that it would take him 48 years to put his last one down.

At age 62, Sammons finally kicked a half-century habit for good.

"It was time," he said. "I had my last cigarette a month ago."

Fearful of future health concerns, Sammons had thought about quitting for years. He was tired of dealing with frequent illnesses, shortness of breath and a mouth that tasted like "an old ashtray." His mother, a lifelong smoker, had ended up on oxygen later in life, "but she quit at 60 and lived another 20 years," he said.

But, despite health fears, it took some not-so-subtle prompting from his family to turn his thoughts into action.

"I was at a football game with my grandson," he said. "He turned to me and asked, 'Why do you smoke?' At 9, he knows it isn't good. That made me determined to quit.

"Plus, I'm pretty sure my wife will leave me if I take up smoking again," Sammons said half-jokingly.

Sammons graduated Oct. 3 from the one class where everyone desires to be a quitter - smoking cessation.

"I feel so much better already," he said. "I can breathe better in the morning; I taste food better. My general health has already improved. And it has only been a month."

The health improvement makes sense since Sammons is no longer breathing in more than 4,000 chemicals, including over 60 known to cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

"A lot of people come to me when health issues are forcing them to quit," said Julie Bissell, smoking cessation program manager at Brooke Army Medical Center here. "Ideally, we would like to see them much younger, before the health problems hit."

Smoking-related health problems include cancer; lung disease, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis; heart attacks; peripheral vascular disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to leg and arm muscles; stroke; and blood clots. And then there is the premature wrinkling, bad breath, bad-smelling clothes and hair, and yellow fingernails.

The health problems aren't limited to the smoker. A bad habit can be bad news for everyone dwelling in a smoker's home.

"Secondhand smoke has been proven to affect children," Bissell said. "If parents are smoking around an infant, the child will later have more respiratory problems like asthma." These children are also prone to more ear infections, colds and bronchitis, according to the cancer society.

When exposed to secondhand smoke, many older adults will end up with emphysema, "something they never would have gotten if they had not been exposed," Bissell said.

Along with health concerns, Bissell said, there are also financial considerations.

"During the smoking cessation class, I do an exercise where people figure out how many cigarettes they smoke in a week, then calculate a year's total in cost," she said. "Most are surprised when they see it's over a $1,000 a year. We try to figure out a better way to spend that money."

Despite health threats and financial drain, 45 million Americans continue to smoke, according to 2003 American Cancer Society statistics. An estimated 23 percent of Americans smoke, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, the military's numbers hover at 34 percent, according to Col. Gerald Wayne Talcott with the Air Force Medical Support Agency, in Falls Church, Va., an increase of 4 percent for the military since 2002.

A substantial number considering nearly half of all smokers who continue to smoke will die from a smoking-related illness.

But a smoker's fate is far from inevitable. No matter the age or number of smoking years, quitting can help people live longer, according to cancer society. People who stop smoking before age 35 avoid 90 percent of the health risks attributable to tobacco. Even those who quit later in life can significantly reduce their risk of dying at a younger age.

There is no time like the present to quit, Bissell said, which is why ACS created the Great American Smokeout 29 years ago. Every year, smokers are encouraged to quit for one day in the hopes it will lead to another. This year's Smokeout is Nov. 17.

Sammons said one day is all it takes. "If you can get through one day, you can get through the rest of your life," he said.

(Elaine Wilson is editor of the Fort Sam Houston News Leader.)

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