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In the womb

Studies have consistently shown that babies born to mothers who smoke have lower birth weight than those born to non-smoking moms. Much like premature babies, they’ll take longer to reach milestones such as walking and talking, and their brains will take longer to reach full size. The good news is that the instances of women smoking during pregnancy are declining. The first South African Demographic and Health Survey showed that smoking rates among adults dropped markedly from 34% to 25% in 1998. This figure is probably lower now because of the heightened awareness of harmful effects of smoking.

The early years

If a mother continues smoking between a child’s birth and teen years, her child will be exposed to second-hand smoke at home which could cause respiratory problems and recurrent ear infections. The child who had intra uterine growth delay as a result of a smoking mother, now will have to play catch-up during these years to reach the same height and cognitive abilities as her peers.


Statistics indicate that children who grow up in a home with smokers are far more likely to start smoking than those who don’t. So, when children who were exposed to cigarette smoke during pregnancy and early childhood reach their teen years, they become more likely to take up smoking themselves. Conversely, there is also evidence of children who are permanently put off smoking because of a parent’s habit, especially those who have seen their parents fall ill as a result of their smoking, but these are in the minority. Research shows that the teenage age group is the only one that hasn’t seen a decline in smoking rates. The cool factor and teen pressure are likely to play a role in this.


If someone started smoking in his teens, his pack years will already be mounting up, contributing strongly to his likelihood of falling ill with a smoking-related illness. A pack year is worked out by looking at the number of cigarettes smoked a day and equating this to a pack of 20 cigarettes. A person who smokes 20 a day will be defined as accumulating one pack year of smoking in one year. A person who smokes 10 cigarettes a day will take two years to accumulate one pack year. Lung cancer incidence in smokers is roughly proportional to dose rate (cigarettes per day) but increases much more rapidly when a person has been smoking for a long period of time. But the heightened risks are not just for lung cancer. According to Cancer research UK, smoking also increases the risk of at least 13 other cancers and is also linked to some forms of breast cancer.


If a person continues smoking in his or her thirties, the pack years add up, increasing the risk of the smoker falling gravely ill. Much of the damage done by smoking is irreversible. So smoking in the teens and 20s and then quitting does not offer a guarantee that someone will not suffer health issues. Often people fall ill from a smoking-related illness long after they’ve stopped – the damage had already been done.

In the thirties, family commitments and the financial demands of raising a family increase. This is when the heavy financial cost of smoking may take its toll. Consider the fact that a 20-a-day smoker will spend about R14 600 a year on smoking, and they’ll also be paying a lot more for insurance cover. (A healthy, non-smoking 25-year-old male could qualify for R2 million of life cover at a monthly premium of around R294 but a smoker of the same age could pay around R592) Imagine what this money could have delivered in terms of savings over someone’s lifetime.


Smokers in their forties will be starting to feel the health impact of their three-decade long habit. At this point Chronic Obstructive Airway disease could be a reality for many smokers with shortness of breath, tight chest, constricted airways and a wet cough playing havoc with their sense of well-being. And by now, if they’ve been smoking 20-a-day for 25 years, they would have spent around R365 000 on cigarettes.


In a smoker’s fifties, the pack years keep racking up as do the health risks. Physical changes, such as facial wrinkles, yellow teeth and droopy eyes start to become more evident. But even more dramatic changes might be accelerating on the inside. Cancer causing cells could be multiplying - significantly increasing the risk of falling ill with cancer.

The retirement years

This is when many smokers start to feel invincible, citing the example of their friend, we’ll call him Thomas Abrahams, who smoked his whole life and died at 99. But for every Thomas Abrahams, there are many smokers – between 70 and 80% in fact – who find themselves gravely ill with cancer or a smoking-related respiratory disease. Not only are lives cut short, but one’s quality of life is greatly compromised by all smoking-related illnesses.

Dr Morkel says, “As the risk of falling ill or dying from a dread disease is heightened by smoking, smokers should ensure they have sufficient dread disease and life cover to protect themselves and their families. They should work with a financial planner to assess risks and decide on a suitable cover level.

“Better yet, those who don’t smoke but are contemplating the habit, will do well to do the sums and evaluate the benefits of saving this amount of money over their lifetime,” she says.

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