World No Tobacco Day: what happens when you stop smoking



Published May 31, 2024


On World No Tobacco Day, commemorated annually on May 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) and medical community are calling on governments to adopt policies that shield children from exposure to harmful tobacco products.

This year’s theme, “Protecting children from tobacco industry interference”, gives young people across the world the platform to urge the tobacco industry to stop targeting them with products that are harmful to their health.

As the trend of smoking and vaping among young people continues to rise, the scientific community is sounding the alarm on the profound impacts these habits can have on developing bodies and minds.

Whether it’s the allure of flavoured e-cigarettes or the peer pressure to light up a traditional cigarette, the consequences for underage users are serious and far-reaching.

Statistics indicate that smoking among young people remains high. More than 38 million youngsters, aged between 13 and 15, are using some form of tobacco. Tobacco use affects all communities.

It has direct harmful effects on health, but also impacts a country’s economy and environment and hinders the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.

“Lifestyle-related diseases stemming from tobacco, alcohol and obesity, have overtaken infectious diseases and become one of the biggest killers,” explained Dr Themba Hadebe, the Clinical Executive of Bonitas Medical Fund.

“We often think tobacco use is no longer an issue. And, while the number of people smoking in South Africa has fallen by over 20% over the past two decades, the reality is that we still have a long way to go.”

Young people who smoke or vape are more likely to engage in risky behaviours. Picture: Lutha Dindi/Pexels

One of the reasons for the decline in cigarette smokers is that South Africa is part of The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The FCTC is an international treaty which requires governments to, amongst other things, raise tobacco taxes, ban tobacco advertising and make public places smoke-free.

It also urges governments to protect their policies from tobacco industry interference and to ensure children grow up free from commercial pressure to start smoking, he said pointing to the looming epidemic of young people who are smokers.

“The facts are clear: Tobacco is harmful to your health. It was responsible for a million deaths during the 20th century and tobacco use could kill a billion during the 21st century.”

Traditional smoking is well-known for causing respiratory problems, but vaping also poses risks.

Young vapers have reported symptoms such as chronic cough, phlegm and bronchitis. E-cigarette vapour contains harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and acrolein, which can irritate and potentially damage the lungs.

But most alarming is that often vaping and smoking serve as a gateway to other risky behaviours, including the use of alcohol and illicit drugs.

Young people who smoke or vape are more likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as unprotected sex or reckless driving.

“When you quit smoking, good things start to happen,” noted Hadebe, “You can feel and see almost immediate improvements to your health.”

The health benefits

Not only can you save up to R1 000 a month when you quit your 20-a-day habit, said Hadebe, but you will enjoy the following health benefits:

Immediate benefits (within 24 Hours): Remarkably, just 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your heart rate and blood pressure begin to normalise. This is an encouraging first step toward better health.

Within days to weeks: Breathing is much easier and energy levels will increase. This means you’ll feel more energetic.

Lung health: From two weeks to three months, your lung function starts to improve. The cilia, tiny hair-like structures in your lungs, begin to repair, reducing mucus and making it easier for you to breathe.

Medium-term Benefits (months to a year):

Heart health: In as little as one year, your risk of heart disease is reduced to half that of a smoker. Your heart begins to recover from the years of strain caused by smoking.

Respiratory health: Over several months, symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath decrease. Breathing becomes easier and your lung capacity improves.

Long-term benefits (years):

Reduced cancer risk: After five years, the likelihood of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, and bladder is cut in half. After 10 years, the risk of dying from lung cancer is about half that of someone who still smokes.

Reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases: In 5 to 15 years, your risk of having a stroke drops to that of a non-smoker.

Mental well-being: In the early stages, quitting smoking can cause withdrawal symptoms like irritability and anxiety. However, over time, many people experience improved mood and reduced stress.

Better relationships: Often, quitting smoking can lead to improved social interactions. Your breath, clothes, and home will smell better, which can positively affect your relationships.

Quitting smoking is not easy and can come with challenges, particularly at the beginning. However, the benefits are vast and well-supported by scientific research.

The evidence is clear: quitting smoking brings immediate and long-term benefits to your health. This World No Tobacco Day, take the first step towards a smoke-free life and reap the rewards for your body and mind.