The Cost of Smoking

It takes more than a few dollars to pay for this addiction


What would you do with $37,000? Put a down payment on a home? Invest in your children’s education? Buy a car?

According to recent studies, many people in the District actually smoke that money away every year. Smoking continues to be a formidable foe in the health arena. Kicking the habit is much easier said than done, however. The number of smokers in the US has been steadily declining over the past decade, but the habit still has a strong hold on select populations. Around 16 percent of adults in DC are smokers, one-quarter of them African-American.

Smoking can damage a person’s body, wallet and family. But there is help right here in Southeast to help kick this habit for good.

The Financial Drain
It’s no secret that smoking can be a costly habit. The average price for a pack of cigarettes in the District is around $8.50. Multiply that by four packs a week and you have what it takes for a night out at the movies. WalletHub recently published a study of the financial burden of smoking, state by state. The results are amazing. DC is among the top 10 costliest states to smoke. Between income loss, out-of-pocket costs, financial opportunity costs, healthcare and other related expenses, DC smokers can expect to spend $37,579 annually on their tobacco dependency. Over a lifetime that number could add up to as much as $1,916,539.

In terms of healthcare costs, smoking can be equally draining. Health issues directly related to smoking, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, vision problems and chronic bronchitis, can cost District residents in excess of $4,800 a year.

Increased Risk for Heart Disease
When it comes to smoking, the heart takes a hit with each drag. Smoking is commonly and correctly linked to lung cancer, but the heart is also affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking can increase the buildup of plaque in blood vessels, make blood sticky (think blood clots) and lower the good cholesterol. The effects on the heart come from blood flow restriction due to the chemicals in the tobacco that are released into your system.

Dr. Terry Jodrie, associate medical director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Service Systems, explains how constricted blood vessels affect the heart. “If you hold hands with a smoker you will realize that your hand is warmer than theirs. And the reason is that blood vessels are constricted. That doesn’t just happen in the hands it also happens in the heart. Nicotine makes blood vessels constrict. It happens in the small vessels of the heart. If you limit those vessels, the heart doesn’t get what it needs and that damages it.”

In addition, chemicals from smoking can raise blood pressure, which can also lead to cardiovascular issues. “When you have all these substances that constrict your vessels, this increases high blood pressure,” says Dr. Jodrie. “Smokers have higher blood pressure than non-smokers. Think of the heart as a pump that pumps into blood vessels. If you constrict the blood vessels and increase the pressure, the heart is actually working harder.”

The news isn’t all bad though. Dr. Jodrie states that if a person quits smoking and remains tobacco free for 10 years or more, the heart will appear as if they had never smoked at all. “The cumulative damage is decreased. Bottom line is, if you’re smoking, stop now.”

Children Pay the Price
Secondhand smoke is an unfortunate development that comes with smoking. If a parent smokes, their child smokes too. Anyone who has ever entered an apartment building where smokers live knows that smoke is not confined to that person’s apartment. Tobacco smoke travels through doors and ventilation systems.

Janet Phoenix, chair of the DC Asthma Coalition, says changing where you smoke really doesn’t keep tobacco smoke away from others. “Even though you may go out of the room or in the hallway, the smoke travels throughout the building, so it’s still a source for children. Anyone who has a respiratory problem is going to be affected by tobacco smoke. The direct effect is that it can trigger an attack.”

Asthma sufferers take a major hit from tobacco. Smoke can aggravate asthma and increase inhaler use. The DC Tobacco Free Coalition reports that smoking can worsen asthma symptoms and even cause asthma in children who did not previously suffer from it.

Over time, sick days from asthma problems affect children’s education and may cause problems in the parent’s workplace. “The attacks that are triggered by cigarette smoke make it difficult for children to maintain steady attendance in school, says Phoenix. “I work with families with children with asthma, and they tell me that it is not only a burden for a child in terms of interrupting their education but it’s also a burden for parents because they have to take off from work to take care of the child. Leave is a problem, and a lot of people have jobs where if they don’t show up they don’t get paid.”


Breathe DC Helps Smokers Quit

United Medical Center (UMC) is hosting smoking cessation classes every Thursday evening this month. While the target audience is women and mothers with children in the home, the classes are open to everyone. The classes are conducted by Breathe DC.

Stephen Jefferson, facilitator of the workshops, says his technique includes changing the mindset of the smoker. “We try to get them to look at where they are and look at where they want to be. A lot of times people smoke because they are stressed or they mourn the past. We’re trying to get them to change their mindset. Can’t keep thinking about the past. You have to forgive yourself.”

One person who has found success with this program is Spencer Holland, a retired educational psychologist who smoked for over 60 years. He said he never tried to quit smoking before enrolling in Breathe DC’s cessation course. “I had no symptoms of this heart condition. I’m an active person. I’ve been doing yoga for 10 years. I walk 5-10 miles a week. I had some health problems. I went into the hospital. All the tests that they did showed that I had an electrical problem in my heart. The doctor said, ‘You must stop smoking.’”

Breathe DC was the only program that met face to face. One defibrillator installation later, Holland found his way to the program in November. “Mr. Jefferson told us that it was okay to admit that we liked smoking. And he told us it’s okay to call on Jesus. I had never prayed for help before.” He went cold turkey and quit.

Want more information on how to enroll in smoking cessation classes at UMC? Call Stephen Jefferson at 202-574-6920 or email


Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.