Heart disease, stroke and other heart problems kill more than 800,000 Americans each year and cost $320 billion a year in health care and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smoking causes more deaths and disability – much of it related to heart disease – than any other preventable cause of death in the United States. It damages your heart by increasing blood pressure, damaging arteries, and limiting the amount of oxygen going to your body’s tissues and organs. It increases your risk of having a heart attack, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and many cancers (including those of the mouth, throat, esophagus and lung). It can endanger pregnancies and cause impotence and infertility.

Smoking can raise triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), lower “good” cholesterol, and make blood sticky and more likely to form blood clots, thus blocking blood flow to the heart and brain. It damages blood vessels by damaging the cells that line blood vessels, increases plaque buildup, and causes thickening and narrowing of blood vessels.

Smokers also increase their family’s risk of lung cancer, heart disease, heart attack, stroke and their children’s risk of dying from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Secondhand smoke, from the smoke of burning tobacco products and the smoke breathed out by a smoker, increases family members’ chances of having asthma, frequent ear infections and respiratory infections. If children already have asthma or allergies, a parent’s smoking may worsen these conditions.

All tobacco products – including cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco or snuff – contain nicotine and can lead to dependence. Nicotine dependence is a long-term or chronic condition. The younger a person starts using tobacco, the more severe the dependence will become.

The solution is simple and 100 percent effective: quit smoking as quickly as you can and never resume the habit. Unfortunately, acting on that solution can be very difficult.

Best quitting strategy

Nicotine is highly addictive and most people need help to quit. Smokers who want to quit average five to seven serious attempts to quit before they become nonsmokers.

There are numerous aids, medications and self-help methods to help you quit tobacco. Recent research has shown that a combination of counseling and medication will triple your chances of successfully quitting. The research also found that taking a prescription medication with brief advice from a health care professional was more effective than unaided attempts to quit. However, using an over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapy (gum, nasal spray, patch or inhaler) with no counseling had a reduced success rate.

The medication-plus-counseling approach is now the standard of care for smoking cessation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved seven medications to help people quit smoking. Prescription medications that help you quit include Wellbutrin (now available as a generic), Zyban and Chantix. These medications work by blocking chemicals in the brain that make you crave nicotine.

Talk with your doctor about the best approach to help you quit.

Visit the American Heart Association’s website to find resources, tips and answers to your questions here.

Visit the Arkansas Department of Health’s Tobacco Quitline, toll free at 1-800-784-8669 or here.