please stop smoking

January 8, 2009

TOM WATKINS: Dying for a breath – please stop smoking

Cigarettes killed my Mom.

In fact, I could visualize Joe Camel there with his hooves around my Mom’s throat as she lay dying in the hospital recently. Of course, Joe Camel was not literally there in the hospital room squeezing the oxygen out of her as she gasped for each breath like a guppy out of a fish tank; but he killed her just the same.

No, this is not about “blaming” anyone for my Mom’s death. She made the decision to smoke. Yet, when she began smoking more than a half century ago there were not the public health concerns that there are today — and clearly, the tobacco industry hid the damage cigarettes would cause. After WWII, the country was abuzz with energy. The stars on the big screen and on the TV screen were shown puffing away as a subliminal message was broadcast that it was cool, the “in” thing to do.

According to the American Lung Association, lung disease is the number three killer in America, responsible for one in six deaths. Today, more than 35 million Americans (make that 34,999,999 as of October 18th at 11:09 p.m. when my Mom succumbed to the grip of Joe Camel’s paws) are living with chronic lung disease such as asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), otherwise known as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.


My Mom had COPD, a hideous disease she contracted by hooking up with Joe Camel when she was a young and impressionable young woman. Smoking is the leading risk factor for COPD. More than 12.1 million U.S. adults age 18 and over were estimated to have COPD in 2006. COPD is called the “silent killer” because it can slowly creep up on you, making you think it is “just a cough” and is just an “irritant,” not life-threatening. Stopping smoking is the single most effective — and cost-effective — way to reduce the risk of developing COPD and slow its progression.

COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in this country, claiming the lives of 118,171 Americans in 2004. Preliminary data show this number increased to 127,000 in 2005. That is one death every four to five minutes. COPD is expected to become the third leading cause of death by the year 2020.


This disease takes a heavy toll on the economy. According to estimates by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, in 2007 the annual cost to the nation for COPD was $42.6 billion. This includes $26.7 billion in direct health care expenditures, $8 billion in indirect morbidity (illness-related) costs and $7.9 billion in indirect mortality (death-related) costs. Taking my Mothers life — priceless!

If someone you love is smoking, try to help in any way you can Ð beg, encourage, and even nag Ð to get them to quit. Try the patch, gum, hypnotism Ð anything Ð but try. And if the first time doesn’t work, try again. The price is too high to give up. Cigarettes will ultimately choke the life out of a smoker or cause them other serious health problems. Watching my Mother die from this hideous disease was awful.

I am not a believer in the death penalty. But for those that produce, market and sell tobacco products that can lead to the loss of quality of life and ultimately take life — that of my Mom and countless others across the country and around the globe that are suffering Ð I could make an exception.


Please do what you can to help prevent this tragic loss of life. The Lung Association offers smoking cessation programs such as Freedom From Smoking and Not On Tobacco as well as self-help programs to assist smokers who want to quit.

The American Lung Association Lung Help Line, (800) LUNG-USA;  (800) 586-4872 , staffed by registered nurses, respiratory therapists and quit-smoking specialists, offers free counseling and support to callers, including those seeking information about COPD. Call them to find out how you can get help to stop smoking or how you can help. You can also go to the American Lung Association Web site, www.LungUSA.organd make donations to help.

Lung disease can leave you breathless. It killed my Mom.

Tom Watkins is a business and education consultant in the U.S. and China. He served as Michigan’s school superintendent from 2001-05. He can be reached at



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