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Giving up smoking

Appearance and physical health affects of smoking

Here people talk about how smoking affects physical appearance and health. Some people seem to avoid any ill effects from smoking, especially if they give up when they are reasonably young, or are never heavy smokers. Everyone seems to know of a lucky person who lives to a ripe old age despite smoking and drinking much of their lives, but people we talked to were well aware that these are highly unusual examples. Blodwen, who smoked for many years, noticed no bad effects from smoking and eventually gave up more for financial reasons than because of her health.

Appearance

Both men and women were very aware of the negative effects of smoking on people’s appearance. Seeing smokers who looked much older than they were (Mariam mentioned a heavy smoker who was in her 50s but looked over 80) was sometimes a powerful motivator to stop while still fairly young. Wrinkles, nicotine-stained fingers, yellow teeth and bad breath do not appeal; some realised that if they found other smokers unattractive, they might also be unattractive to non-smokers. Angela said her teeth were getting “horrible”, and that her fingers were stained. Cassie said she didn’t want to end up looking like her mum, who has smoked for years.
 

Andy associated things like bad breath and yellow teeth with smoking as well as more serious smoking related illnesses.

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Male
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What sort of risks would you think of when you thought about health risks?

I mean, I mean how the health risks is associated with smoking is as long as your arm aren’t you? I mean you’ve got lung cancer, coronary heart disease are obviously the two biggest things, but emphysema and all kinds of things. But I mean it’s not just is that. It’s cosmetic things as well. It ages the skin and it’s just…

And other things as well. I mean just social things. It makes, it colours your teeth. And it makes your breath smell bad. It makes, you know, it makes things, you know, your general fitness levels fall through the floor. But for me, I mean, always, always the biggest things I associated with smoking were always old people, I think. Old people in bed wheezing away, coughing up their lungs or whatever.
Minor ailments

Everyone gets coughs and colds but many smokers feel more prone to minor infections and that when they do get them take longer to recover. People said they had a ‘smokers’ cough’, regularly coughed up phlegm or had a nasty taste in their mouth on waking, especially after smoking a lot.
 

Andy started to realise that he was getting ‘chesty coughs’ after colds, and this eventually moved him to give up smoking.

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Male
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I mean it was, because I used to be quite young, sporty and you know, athletic. I stopped doing stuff like this, I got lazy, but I suddenly, things were, things were more difficult to do, like going out playing a long game of football. Things like that. You know, or getting a cold. That was always the worst one. You get a cold and you always end up with a, every single, it doesn’t matter what kind of cold it was, you’d end up, I’d end up with a cough. A horrible, chesty cough, where you’re hacking up horrible gunk. And after the cold had cleared, even for a few, you know, even for probably a week, two weeks, sometimes longer than that, the cough would be there still. And it wasn’t sort like a proper smoker’s cough. I never had that sort of wheezing at 6 o’clock in the morning every single morning. It was only ever sort of just after I’d a cold. But it made colds more difficult to shift, because they lasted longer than I think they normally would, because they hang around because my lungs were clapped out, [laughs] effectively. And I think it was, that was one of the things that really annoyed me.

And I think I realised that probably within sort of a year or so, a year prior to me giving up, I suddenly realised, wait a minute. I always get, I just thought, initially I put it down to bad luck, initially I thought I’m just having, you know, I’m just getting a lot of chesty colds at the moment. But I don’t think it was that realistically. It was because my, you know, I’d been smoking for such a long time. And I think that was a crucial aspect of it. But I think it was a matter of, all of those things put into one, you know, the, the health aspects, the cost aspects and that with the catalyst of, of me suddenly realising that I found myself completely and utterly enslaved to it. I think all of those things conspired together all in one go, came together and that was the moment that I just thought to myself, do you know what, that’s it. That’s time. I’m going to pack this in. Which I eventually did.
 

Gareth had developed periodontal disease after years of smoking. He thought that having many of his teeth replaced with a new set of dentures might be an incentive to stop smoking7.

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
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Now obviously the condition of my teeth, that’s another thing. I mean because I’ve smoked for, well off and on for so long, the condition of my teeth are pretty bad. I think there may be other factors that contribute to that, like diabetes or you know, whatever. But I do suffer periodontal. I have periodontal disease which means now that all my teeth have to come out and a totally new set put in. I’ve been putting that off for a while, but I know it needs to happen soon, you know, because I’m concerned about the infections and you know, because if your mouth isn’t right then you’ve got bad blood [laughs]. You know, it circulates. It goes everywhere. And that’s something I’m actually about to take action on now. I’ve already seen the dentist, but that was several months ago. And the reason I didn’t sort of do it immediately was because, because most of my teeth are still okay. But the condition is there, so that’s going to have… And smoking has certainly contributed to all of that. So I was thinking, well I’ve stopped smoking now. I’m going to have my teeth done. Once that’s done, that’s going to help me prevent myself from smoking if I’ve got a new set of dentures [laughs].
 

Carol found that if flu was going around, she would be the one to get it. Since she stopped smoking two years ago she has been noticeably healthier.

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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I was sitting, I wasn’t sitting with chest infections all the time. Sorry [laughs] I wasn’t sitting with chest infections all the time. Because I was, I, you know, I would, if there was ‘flu going around, I was the one getting it. If there was a cold in the area, I was the one that was in bed because it was so debilitating because I couldn’t breathe and you know, my lungs I was wheezing and coughing and, I haven’t had any of that in the last two years. Simply because I’m not smoking anymore. I don’t wheeze when I talk. I don’t have the irritating little [imitates a cough, cough, cough] all the time. And what a difference. What a difference it makes that I can walk up the road and feel happy and cheerful and, hell I can breathe [laughs]. And for me, that’s, you know, it’s a wonderful feeling to have.
Andrew used to have constant ‘coughs and colds’ once he quit he recovered from them more quickly. Munir used to wake up in the night with ‘slime’ in his mouth, and Haseen said that he had phlegm and stomach acid.

Some people said they had felt OK when they were smoking but noticed a cough when they gave up - Laura said that the only ill effect she experienced from over ten years of smoking was the cough that started soon after she stopped.

Physical activity and sports

We talked to people who had been enthusiastic sportsmen and women while they were smokers. Some, like Haseen, looked back on this as a rather strange contradiction in their lives but others, knowing that smoking was bad for their health, tried to do what they could to balance this with a lifestyle that involved exercise and a healthy diet.
 

Haseen found it funny that he would jog with a friend and then have a cigarette immediately afterwards.

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Age at interview: 46
Sex: Male
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The funniest thing is we go used to go jogging in the morning, me and my friend. We used to go jogging in the morning. There used to be a huge old ballast there. We used to go jogging along the ballast and after jogging from the nearby shop we’d buy four cigarettes and smoke. Once this old guy came to us and said, “If you guys are jogging, why on earth are you smoking after your jog.” We said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, yeah.”

So funny, I mean, yes, by the time, all of our friends. We started, smoking was part of the enjoyment too, when we bought, make sure that we have cigarettes with us, we don’t want to run out of cigarettes.
 

As a PE teacher, Keith tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle by doing exercise and watching his diet.

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
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You were saying quite into sport at the time.

Hm.

What sports were you into?

Oh it varied, mainly team games when I was younger, football, physical contact games like football, rugby and alongside that squash and badminton, and I trained as a PE teacher and I smoked through that time as well, which is just ridiculous. Mind you I wasn’t the only smoking on the PE course, but yes, trained as a PE teacher and so loved all sports really and then taught PE for 13 years and thoroughly enjoyed that as well.

So, I was fully aware of the health implications of smoking and not smoking, the implications of exercise and good diet and all of those things surrounding a healthy lifestyle. But I didn’t live up to it.

And the other things surrounding a healthy lifestyle that you would have done, so the good diet and so on that you were obviously be learning about as a PE teacher, did you sort of do other things like that as conscious sort of choices to be healthy or …?

I think I did. I think I tried to keep a healthy diet as much as, as much as I possibly could, and try and keep things in moderation I think, tried to keep things in moderation. I didn’t make it, it was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now. I mean people, sports science is very intensive I think and very, very detailed, and it was nowhere near as intense and… whether the knowledge was about or, or not I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t. I wasn’t as aware. I mean you know, the advantages of a good balanced diet, and yes, I did try, try to live to those years.

John had sporting role models who ran marathons and were smokers. John himself used to play hockey and found that at the time smoking "didn’t affect him much". Munir and Khan thought that they must have been quite physically healthy as they regularly played cricket.

Others began to realise that smoking was taking a toll on their abilities. Some found that even minor exertion could leave them feeling out of breath. Angela pointed out that when you are young you seem to feel no ill effects from smoking “But as you start getting older… you’re out of breath when you’ve just walked round. That’s when it becomes a health issue I think, as you get older”. Jules noticed that he was getting out of breath doing simple things like running up the stairs.

 

Looking back, Lisa realised that smoking had made her feel that exercise was rather pointless.

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
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Yeah, the relief, and when I look at, even now, twelve years later, and I’ll notice someone in the street who’s smoking and I just think, thank God I haven’t got to do that anymore. And I still feel it now. Oh. It’s amazing.

I probably didn’t do much exercise, however, because, when I was a smoker, because I just thought, what’s the point. I’m a smoker, you know, that’s the worse thing I can do to my body, or one of the worst things I can do to my body. Why try and be healthier and eat healthy and do exercise when I’m a smoker. What’s the point? So it made me, it had I don’t know, it had this ripple effect, it made me make bad choices in other areas of my life, kind of. You know, yeah.

Was it just about exercise or, how did it feel?

It’s just a mindset that you’re in. An unhealthy mindset in a way. Not a very nice place to be. So I’m glad not to be there anymore. Yeah.
 
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Abdul first realised how smoking affected his fitness when he played badminton.

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Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
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Well I mean when I picked up sport I realised how bad it was, you know, I mean it was really, it was inhibiting in terms of sport, and especially when you’re playing people, and I played badminton regularly, really regularly, and I played people who are very good at sport, who are much fitter than me and a good five or six years younger than me as well. So the compound effect of all of that, being younger, being healthier, smoking, not smoking, or smoking very little. These are the people that I’m playing with. I was getting hammered all the time.

And, you know, there was a period when one of the guys started the sport for the first time and I was absolutely winning and then once he got proficient at sports I had no chance, because he is, his fitness levels are so good, you know, good compared to mine, and you know, I used to frequently joke about how I wouldn’t, you know, in nowhere in any part of my life would I push myself physically in the way that I did at badminton because they'd got themselves to a level of proficiency and fitness for me to try and even keep up with carrying this habit of smoking, smoking both, you know, skunk and all that stuff, or, you know, weed, or spliffs as well as cigarettes, it just wasn’t [pprrrrr] you know, it was too much to try and keep it up.

So I mean, you could see very clearly the differences in health and fitness and general lung capacity. Yes.
 

Anna found that she needed to exercise in ways that made her feel good, rather than activities that she felt she ‘should’ do.

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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So you said I’m going to start running and take back control in these other ways?

Yes, it never works does it? I mean I think I can sort of keep these things up for a very short period of time, you know, and you know, it’s like yo yo dieting and stuff, you’re just kind of like, okay I’m just going to put myself on this really impossible regime and it makes me feel good for about six weeks and then you just think ‘oh this is just too much work, I can’t’, and also it’s something that’s very much about sort of, it’s not about trying to listen or find out what really makes you feel good, it’s actually above some abstract notion as to what’s good, and I think, I think it got, sort of started to change for a little bit when I actually started to think, okay I’m going to do these things. Not because, you know, ‘they are good,’ in inverted commas, but because actually they make me feel good. So, I think it was sort of taking up some kind of exercise the first time and I really kind of persisted with that, when I started rowing. Because that was a) I just really enjoyed it, and b) I just liked the people, and it was all part of, you know, it wasn’t a solitary, I need to punish myself. It was more like, wow, I’m going to get down there. I’m going to see all these people and, you know, we’ll, I mean I did go sort of rowing in the snow, but you know, it was all about having quite a lot of fun. So that, I think that’s where it just, you know, I realised that I needed to do something else. And then, also I guess, well that was more, still more about other people, and enjoying it, and then I think that started when I, because I slipped a disc and started doing some yoga, just to, that was specifically for people who had back pain. And I remember sort of getting into that, and actually having that weird sensation where I thought, wow I’m always come out of this class, and I feel really happy and, and, making the sort of connection and thinking right that’s, you know, that’s what they always go on about, people, you know, like running, but I never, I always assumed I could probably run a marathon and never get the endorphin fix. So this obviously doesn’t work for me, and maybe I need to be more alert to, you know, what makes me feel good or actually, you know, I ended up thinking that makes me feel. I find that more interesting as well. So, you know, even within yoga I would still actually think oh I find things, I find it more interesting you know, where you’re kind of really trying to feel minute differences in your body rather than making a beautiful shape sort of on the outside.

So I think that’s, yes, that’s also about that might have feed me to thinking about smoking somehow. [Laughs] I don’t know.

So I guess thinking may be not about having an abstract idea of this is good and so on, do you start, are you saying you starting to own it more in that sense, started, or how did it work for you? If you didn’t just say I’m going to, you know, eat apples all day and run..

Yes. I think it was more about I owning it more is one way of putting it. I think it was more about not sort of being obsessed with the end product, but actually thinking, okay, it’s actually about now. How it makes me feel now. And so I suppose that feeds into the thing I said about, the smoking bit. I figured out that actually when you really have that, you’re sitting round everyone smoking, you’re thinking oh I’d really like a cigarette and may be you haven’t smoked for three months, and you think, well actually that doesn’t work. I can’t do it. So sort of, I think it was more about thinking about okay it’s not about some abstract notion I’m going to be fitter. It’s about actually this makes me feel better now or within… I think that sense of yes, what does it feel like now, rather than always… I think that’s probably true of most people when they are younger… always living in the future, rather than kind of thinking okay, you know, right now, does this make me feel good or bad or…
When people gave up smoking they often made other changes in their lives at the same time, such as taking up sport or facing health issues more seriously. For example, Tom decided to address his diet, exercise, smoking and cannabis all at the same time.

(Also see ‘Being a non-smoker’ and ‘Effects of not smoking’).

​Last reviewed August 2018.

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