The myth that the effects of cigarette smoking take decades to cause organ damage is far from the truth.
"We often see acute plaque ruptures in people in their 30s who have no other risk factor," says Dr. Sameer Sayeed, a cardiologist with ColumbiaDoctors, the physicians and surgeons of Columbia University. "They even go into cardiac arrest. Sometimes we can resuscitate, sometimes we can't."
"From a cardiology perspective, we see the worst effects of smoking," he continues. "The toxins in cigarette smoke erode the artery walls and cause ruptures. If they survive, we can use stents. But if they don't stop smoking, those stents get blocked quickly."
Such is the addictive quality of nicotine that many smokers don't quit until their health has deteriorated to the point of permanent organ damage -- and some continue even after surgery.
"Smokers who make it to their 50s and 60s, that's when we see all the heart's blood vessels damaged -- and it's not fixable by stents," says Dr. Sayeed. "That's when we have to do bypass surgery. Some older smokers who get lung cancer that heals still don't stop smoking. They think, 'I beat it once, I can beat it again.'"
Many smokers often quote an elderly relative or neighbor in their 90s who smoked all their lives and evaded disease, but Dr. Sayeed says that they're a rarity.
"Lung and heart disease doesn't happen to all," he says. "Some people are resistant due to something in their genetics. They are lucky. But they are few."
Tips for quitting
"I recommend my patients take a cessation program with a counselor and keep trying until they find something that works for them," Dr. Sayeed says. Here are his thoughts on some popular aids out there:
Chantix, a prescription medication: "We use Chantix as long as the side effects are tolerable. Some people can't tolerate the nightmares [it's linked to], and it is expensive."
Nicotine patches: "They are less expensive than Chantix. We have a good success rate with them."
Electronic cigarettes: "Electronic cigarettes work in giving the smoker that hand-to-mouth satisfaction. Smokers can substitute them and have that after-dinner cigarette, just without the smoke." But they're not without controversy: A September study out of Vienna found that electronic cigarettes still restrict a user's airways, even after just one puff.
Cigars/pipes: "Some people are so addicted that we wean them onto cigars and pipe smoking first to break their habit."