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World No Tobacco Day 2024 is Friday, May 31. Created by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1987 as “a world no-smoking day,” the now-annual awareness day is recognized to “draw global attention to the tobacco epidemic and the preventable death and disease it causes.”

One of the diseases that tobacco use can cause is cardiovascular disease, the world’s leading cause of death. After high blood pressure, tobacco use is the second leading cause of cardiovascular disease, contributing to approximately 17% of all cardiovascular-related deaths globally, according to the WHO.

See how saying NO to tobacco can help you live heart healthier—and longer!

How Smoking Affects Heart Health

You may know that smoking tobacco is bad for your lungs, but have you ever thought about how it affects the heart? In fact, tobacco use in any form, whether that’s smoking cigarettes and cigars or using smokeless tobacco products, can severely impact your heart health.

Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals (many proven to be carcinogens) that when inhaled can interfere with the natural processes of the cardiovascular system, damaging the heart and blood vessels. This damage can include:

Reduced oxygen supply: Smoking affects more than your ability to breathe. Your lungs take in oxygen and deliver it to your heart, which pumps this oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body through the blood vessels. Smoking reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, decreasing the oxygen supply to your vital tissues and organs. This can lead the heart to pump harder to compensate, causing heart damage over time.

Increased blood pressure: Nicotine, the addictive stimulant chemical in tobacco, can cause blood vessels to contract, constricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure (or hypertension) is a significant risk factor for developing various cardiovascular issues, including heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, stroke, angina, and atrial fibrillation (or AFib), the most common type of heart arrhythmia.

Increased heart rate and irregular heart rhythm: Nicotine’s stimulant effects go beyond contracting blood vessels. By stimulating the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine and adrenaline (part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response), nicotine increases the heart rate. For some individuals, this constant overstimulation and rapid heart rate can lead to heart arrhythmia (abnormal or irregular heart rhythm), which is the most common reason for a pacemaker.

Narrowing and blocking blood vessels: Smoking can damage the cells lining blood vessels, impairing their ability to regulate blood flow. When this happens in the arteries, it can lead to atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits (also known as plaque) on the artery wall. This is often referred to as “hardening of the arteries,” and it can narrow the flow of blood pumped from the heart. When this plaque breaks apart, it can congeal and form blood clots that can block the artery, leading to heart attack or stroke.

As you can see from these harsh physical effects, smoking tobacco greatly increases the risk for developing various cardiovascular diseases and conditions. And it’s not only smokers who are at risk, but everyone who is exposed to their toxic smoking habit. Nonsmokers who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke in their home or workplace have an up to 30% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Quit Smoking! Your Heart Will Thank You

Quitting smoking is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risks for developing cardiovascular diseases and add years to your life. On average, smokers die more than 10 years earlier than nonsmokers, making smoking the most preventable cause of death in the United States!

It is never too late to quit, but the sooner you quit, the sooner you will start to feel the positive effects of a tobacco-free lifestyle and live a healthier life. Your heart will feel the effects almost immediately, dropping to a normal heart rate after 20 minutes without a cigarette. For each day you go without smoking, your risk of having a heart attack decreases. After one year of being smoke-free, your risk of coronary heart disease is half that of someone who is still smoking. Within five years of quitting, your risk for a stroke is roughly the same as that of a person who has never smoked. These are just some of the ways your heart begins to heal once you stop filling your body with tobacco smoke!

Knowing (and experiencing) the health effects of smoking is enough to make most smokers want to quit. However, the addictive nicotine in all tobacco products can make kicking the habit for good an uphill battle. That is why comprehensive smoking cessation plans and programs that take a holistic approach are the most successful. These start with the desire of the smoker to quit and then support them with one-on-one or group counseling, medical professionals, and medication. Counseling and medication can more than double a tobacco user’s chance of successfully quitting, while “intensive advice” from healthcare professionals (like their primary care physician) increases the chance of quitting by 84%, according to the WHO.

If you are ready to quit smoking, talking with your doctor is a great place to start. They can guide you with a medical approach to overcoming tobacco addiction based on your current health and refer you for additional support or medication. Your health insurance plan may offer cessation services or benefits, so see what your plan covers to take advantage of all the support offered. Many organizations, like the American Lung Association and Tobacco Free Florida, offer free smoking cessation resources, programs, and support—virtually, through phone quitlines, or by connecting you with support groups in your area.

Join Our Mission: Donate on World No Tobacco Day

While holistic, comprehensive smoking cessation programs are the most effective ways to quit tobacco for good, most of the world does not have access to them.

According to the WHO, only 23 countries (comprising 32% of the global population) currently offer cost-covered comprehensive cessation services to tobacco users. That means two thirds of the world’s population has no help to quit but does have easy access to tobacco products. Around 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low- and middle-income countries. Similarly, 75% of the 18.6 million worldwide deaths from cardiovascular disease occur in low- to middle-income countries.

At ForHearts Worldwide, we are working to reverse these dire numbers through our mission to provide cardiac services and devices to people in need in developing countries around the world. The cost of pacemaker surgery and patient care can be $50,000, or more. Through the generous support of donors and sponsors and the services of volunteer medical teams, ForHearts can provide these life-saving devices and implant procedures, as well as lifelong follow up care, at no cost to our patients.

Join us on May 31 in saying NO to tobacco and YES to heart health—for yourself and for those hearts in need!

Make your donation to ForHearts Worldwide in honor of World No Tobacco Day.