When people talk about tobacco and its negative effects, most think only of lung cancer and perhaps, red lips and blackened fingers. But tobacco causes a lot more harm to the body than that. Worse still, tobacco affects not only those who intentionally take it in directly, such as smokers but those who could be near them as they smoke (second-hand smoke).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) research, six million people worldwide die from the use of and exposure to tobacco every year. The most notably dangerous chemical in the plant is nicotine.
Mr Ahmed Ouma, a doctor and the WHO Africa region adviser on tobacco control, says one of the effects of the chemicals in tobacco is that they reduce the blood flow to a particular area because the blood vessels keep on tightening as one is exposed to tobacco.
“Denial of blood to that area, will automatically lead to that part’s death,” he says. “Of course, if the place is not well aerated, it is susceptible to infection. The long term infection is cancer,” Ouma says.
This was at the launch of the Center for Tobacco Control in Africa at Kampala Serena Hotel on November 3, with the theme, “The journey from the farm to the lungs; who gains from tobacco.”
Ouma went on to say that any part of body can suffer from these effects of tobacco, including the respiratory system, mouth, the brain, sperms, skin and brain.
When they get to the respiratory system, these dangerous chemicals irritate the trachea (windpipe) and the larynx (voice box), which is why people who smoke tend to get a hoarse voice. There may also suffer breathlessness due to the narrowing and swelling of the lung airways and excess mucous in the lungs.
Also, if there is reduced blood flow, one is more likely to have reduced or high blood pressure and heart rate, according to the doctor. This increases one’s chances of getting a heart attack or a stroke.
Furthermore, the doctor says tobacco decreases semen quality and causes abnormal sperm count. It also reduces the speed at which the sperms move and changes their appearance which could lead to one producing abnormal children. This could also lead to infertility in men.
In women, tobacco may cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle or may cause them not to menstruate at all. “We also don’t encourage pregnant women to smoke as this causes harm to the unborn baby,” Dr Ouma says. There is also a high chance of getting a miscarriage or having a premature baby. The smoke may affect the baby’s brain development and growth when it is born.
Links to mental problems
Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, a principal medical officer for mental health and control of substance abuse, Ministry of Health, says most mentally disturbed patients have had contact with tobacco. Most of them started by using tobacco before they graduated to other kinds of drugs like marijuana.
Both Dr Ndyanabangi and Dr Ouma state that tobacco destabilizes the hormonal balance in the body, which will lead to a low immune system. “And if the immune system is low, one will be susceptible to many diseases like pneumonia, TB, Aids and influenza,” Dr Ouma says, “and when the illnesses occur, they are severe and it will take longer to heal.”
In some traditional settings, when a child has stomach problems, an adult will chew on tobacco and gives the fluids to the child by mouth to stop the pain. Adults themselves sometimes chew on a leaf if they are in the same situation. But Dr Ouma says this only makes things worse. “What the tobacco does is paralyses movement of the internal organs. The fact that you don’t feel the movement doesn’t mean that you are fine.” The tobacco may later lead to the irritation and inflammation of the stomach’s internal organs.
Tobacco is also dangerous to the skin. Apart from making one’s skin dark, dry, easily irritable and causing it to age fast, Dr Ouma says that it also causes skin diseases. This commonly affects children who work on tobacco farms. As they carry the leaves from the farm, the leaves excrete chemicals onto the skin. After a while of doing this, the nicotine, will reach a level where it reduces the skin’s elasticity. No amount of tobacco intake is safe. Dr Ouma says, “Let’s just say that whoever is exposed to it is at risk.”