PUBLISHED: 12:23 PM on Wednesday, November 23, 2005
It's never too late to quit smoking
SAVANNAH, Ga. - Patty Williams quit her daily pack-and-a-half of Salem cigarettes for a simple reason: she didn't want to end up in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask.

Williams, 55, went cold turkey 27 months ago. She had been smoking since she was 16. Every time she got into her car, she put the key in the ignition and couldn't put the car into reverse without lighting up. That's how much smoking was a part of her life.

Kicking a habit you've had since you were a teenager requires more than just being told your skin is yellow, your hair smells like smoke and the old "kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray'' cliche.

Sometimes it takes a health scare. Williams had chronic bronchitis. She was sent to a pulmonologist who warned she was at high risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which causes chronic illness and disability and is eventually fatal.

"There were people in his office with oxygen masks and in wheelchairs,'' Williams said. "I left in tears.''

She did what the American Cancer Society suggests. Pick a day to quit. Stop frequenting smoky places. Keep yourself busy. She also attended cessation classes at work.

And she found something to do with her hands -- eat strawberry Twizzlers.

Although Williams gained weight like many ex-smokers, she's working it off by doing exercises she couldn't do while smoking: walking campus at lunchtime, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and roller-blading around her neighborhood.

"I don't know that I would have quit without the threat of disease,'' Williams said.

She hasn't been sick since quitting. Her skin tone looks healthier. She smells better. She saves about $120 a month.

Her two grown children, who had been begging her to quit and don't smoke themselves, know Mom is improving her life by not smoking.

Even quitting later in life can significantly reduce the risk of dying early, according to the American Cancer Society.

More people are getting that message.

Fewer American adults smoked in 2004 than in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 20.9 percent of the U.S. population smoked regularly in 2004, slightly down from 2003, when 21.6 percent smoked.

The figures are from the National Health Interview Survey, a phone survey of more than 31,000 U.S. residents over age 18.

Earl Kirkley, 82, a local hospital volunteer, quit 35 years ago, when Marlboros cost 35 cents a pack and nicotine patches didn't exist.

He quit for the sake of his health and his pocketbook.

"If you have any sense at all,'' Kirkley said, "you should have the sense to quit.''